As hunters, when we talk about trophies we are often faced with the idea that they are part of a macabre collection. It could not be more wrong as it respectfully represents the memories of an animal and the circumstances of its death. Trophies are also a way to keep track of the health status of a population (e.g. the length of the lower jaw among cervids). Sometimes, it is also an occasion to see abnormalities or pathologies we do not know such as actinophytosis, which remains unknown for lots of hunters and is represented by the alteration of bone structure.
There is absolutely no shame in respecting the game one harvests and wanting to keep a memory of it.
So how do you prepare your trophy? Even if it seems complicated to prepare its own big game skull, you will see it is not!
First, if you want to have a shoulder mount by a taxidermist, be sure to cut the skin posteriorly from the front shoulders and following the back up to the head. Now let’s focus on the European mount. It consists of the full skull or the upper part of it whitened. You should consider sawing the skull before boiling as it saves time and the bones will be weakened in the cooking process.
If you do not have the time to take care of the fresh skull, you can put it in the freezer (assuming you get a big one for a deer rack to fit in) or at least in a cold chamber for a few days. If you do so, thaw it and let it drain from its fluids in room temperature water before the next steps. Be sure to have a big enough cooking pot particularly in the case of a deer skull (Figure 1).
What do you need?
A sharp knife, a saw (potentially), an apron, goggles and single use gloves, a pair of boots, water pressure cooker (potentially), one cooking pot fitting the skull dimensions, a paintbrush or some paper towel, some highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide (the more concentrated the better, you can buy some in pool cleaning supplies) and a container able to stand the treatment (e.g. glass).
Estimated time: ½ day.
I- Initial step
The first step is to skin the skull and remove any muscles you can. The cleaner it is, the faster the next step will be. Separate the upper and the lower jaws. Proceed cautiously with a sharp knife and remove any tissue you can, including the tongue and the brain (Figure 2). The brain is hard to take out from the skull and using an air compressor or a pressure washer may speed up the process. It is possible to boil the head directly without any skinning process, but it will then require a longer boiling time.
Be careful with horned-wearing mountain games because the horns may fall off during boiling, thus it is better to remove them. Make sure you measure the distance between the horns prior to boiling to place them exactly in the right position later.
If you are taking care are of an animal you found dead in an advanced state of decomposition, you may treat the skull (exception to the antler) in an hypochlorite solution keeping in mind that an elongated time of contact will induce permanent damage to the bones. Moreover, the antlers or the horns must never be in contact with hypochlorite which would stain them so it would be better to protect them with plastic foils and tape.
Place yourself in a well-vented area, put the skull in the cooking pot and complete with water only. Completely immerge the skull for a wild boar, and below the antlers for a cervid (Figure 3). Boiling will drop the water level so be sure you have some more to adjust the level during this step. Start with room temperature water to avoid cracking the teeth.
During cooking, small bones or teeth may detach from the skull, filter the water to ensure you gathered them all and extract loose teeth before cooking, you can replace them after with some glue if necessary (unless you want to have the skull officially measured) .
Let the skull boil for 1 h for a roe deer and up to 2 h for a red deer. As soon as you can detach the meat easily you can stop and proceed to the next step.
You can now start detaching the tissues left on the skull with a knife and some pliers. It is much faster with a pressure washer (Figure 4-5, video). Be careful not to stay too long at the same spot, particularly at the nasal region which is the most fragile part. Eliminate all tissues, particularly inside the skull (brains and in the sinus) as they would rot otherwise. If you kept the eyes you can easily extract them once they are cooked. You may want to wear boots, goggles and an apron to avoid ending up covered in meat and brains.
Once the skull is perfectly cleaned from anything other than the bones and the teeth, you can whiten it with hydrogen peroxide. Be extra careful during this step and wear safety goggles and gloves (latex or better nitrile). Hydrogen peroxide is dangerous for you and it will stain the antlers/horns if it gets in contact with them, so proceed with caution. You can wrap the antlers with plastic foil and adhesive tape.
Apply the solution either with a paintbrush or with some paper towels. You can soak in the solution and apply it directly on the skull (Figure 6). Keep it covered for a night and expose it to sunlight to enhance the effect afterwards.
Special case: wild boar teeth extraction
Wild boar trophies usually involve the upper and lower canines, called tusks, mounted on a wooden plate. If you just want to keep the tusks, the best way is to saw both jaws. Consider that 2/3 of the teeth are located within the bone so you should cut the bone a few centimeters further inside than the estimated end of the teeth row to be on the safe side. You can put both pieces of jaw in room temperatured water and start the boiling process. Finally, carefully extract the teeth with back and forth movement (do not forget how sharp they are). Once you cleaned the teeth, leaving no tissues in their cavity and let them dry, fill them with candle wax or resin for better conservation (Figure 7).
The skull can now be mounted on a mount or be kept as it is. In order to keep track of the origin of each trophy, you can write on the back of the mount or under the skull when and where it was harvested as well as the rifle model, caliber and ammo you used. Keep at least half of the lower jaw to determine precisely the age of the animal (by counting the dental cement, Michell, Journal of Animal Ecology, 1967).
Did you know?
- Some cervid species including the red deers possess two upper canines which can be used to make jewelry (how to extract them, video). Even if the percentage of roe deers having one or two upper canines remains unknown, it is often stated to be below 10%, further increasing the emotional value of the trophy. Because unlike the rack, you can not see the canines before the death of the animal (Figure 9). One study conducted on a small sample size in England and Scotland described between 2% and 17% of roe deers with canines and a lowest frequency among does (Chaplin and Atkinson, Journal of Zoology, 1968).
- Some insects from the Dermestidae family are frequently employed to clean the tissues from the bones by professional taxidermists and natural history museums. These insects feed on the dead tissues and leave the bone perfectly clean, without altering its color.
- There are official measurers who can evaluate each trophy. Join your hunting federations if you want to know more about the process (e.g. in France, the Association Française de Mensuration des Trophées, https://www.ancgg.org/commission-comment.asp).
- Cours du Brevet Grand Gibier, Association Nationale des Chasseurs de Grand Gibier (ANCGG, https://www.ancgg.org/index.asp).
- Jean-Michel C., a true trophy preparation expert.
- Chaplin R. E., Atkinson J., The occurrence of upper canine teeth in Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) from England and Scotland. Journal of Zoology, 1968, 155: 141-144.
- Mitchell B., Growth Layers in Dental Cement for Determining the Age of Red Deer (Cervus elaphus L.). Journal of Animal Ecology, 1967, 36: 279-293.
Figure captions :
Figure 1. The set-up: a large cooking pot for three roe deer skulls and one red deer.
Figure 2. The initial step: remove as much tissue as you can.
Figure 3. Let it boil for 60 min for a roe deer, 90 min for a red deer.
Figure 4. A nice help from the pressure washer to clean remaining tissues.
Figure 5. A little work is still necessary on the stag skull though.
Figure 6. Skull whitening with the paper towel method. Be extra-careful not to stain the antlers.
Figure 7. Wild boar tusks extracted and filled with candle wax once dried. The limit between the hidden and exposed parts of the teeth is clearly visible.
Figure 8. There is almost nothing to do on the lower jaw to clean it so keep them; it will allow you to determine the exact age of your specimen.
Figure 9. An interesting roe buck from France. Canines are rare amongst roe deers.