Road kills are also an excellent source of cheap and very useful material, I have a very large collection of materials obtained in this way. Cost? A bit of borax and salt, and the time spent in preparing them.
If you do find birds it is often best to clip off or pluck the feathers you require and not bother trying to skin them. Birds, especially small ones, are very difficult to skin unless you have a lot of practice.
The wings of most birds should be clipped off close to the body with strong scissors or pruning shears, and then the knuckles treated with a 1/1 mixture of salt and borax, and left to dry until no sweating or moisture is discernible, add more salt and borax as required to achieve this.
When dry, place them in a sealed polythene bag and then in the freezer for a couple of days (this kills nearly all possible pests). After freezing I wash my stuff in warm soapy water, let it dry naturally for a while on a few sheets of old newspaper and give it a bit of a final blow dry with a hair dryer to smooth and fluff up the hair or feathers. I usually also microwave the stuff after freezing, for sixty seconds at six-hundred Watts, but this is not strictly necessary. I am just ultra careful.
Bugs can ruin a collection in no time, and my collection is large and irreplaceable. I have been collecting stuff like this for over thirty years.
The result, when completely dry, is then placed in a zip-lock bag with a few crystals of Napthalene or similar moth and pest deterrent. Useful body feathers should be plucked and treated in the same way. Write down on the packet where you got them from, what bird, what part of the body etc.
Some old dressings give instructions where the feathers mentioned in the recipe may be found on the bird, this information is extremely useful, and saves a lot of frustration when tying some patterns, as you can select the correct feather to start with. Tying some flies with feathers from the wrong part of the correct bird renders them almost useless for their originally intended purpose.
Whatever you do, do not under any circumstances add materials to your collection until you are absolutely certain that all pests have been eliminated from them.
I also skin rabbits and hares, and the occasional bisam or squirrel, when I find them relatively undamaged at the roadside, squirrel skins and tails are especially useful. They must be fresh and not too badly damaged if you want to do this, if you are unsure how old the carcass is then leave it. If there is anything much crawling about on the carcass you should also leave it.
Animals found in winter are likely to be OK, in high summer be careful. You should wear a pair of heavy rubber gloves for picking such animals up and placing them in a well sealed polythene sack, and before commencing skinning or trimming operations douse the carcass with a good disinfectant, and wear gloves at all times.
In some countries or states it may be illegal to pick up road kills generally or just certain animals, make sure you are aware of the regulations before you do it. Cats and dogs should be left alone, they invariably belonged to somebody, and if you are seen cutting bits off them at the roadside completely unnecessary and ridiculous complications may arise, which it is better to avoid.
Skinning small furry mammals is quite easy, the usual method is to use a scalpel or sharp carpet knife. Cut carefully around the legs slightly above the “ankles” of the animal, and then cut down the inside of the legs towards the middle of the animal’s belly. Cut as shallowly as possible to avoid damaging the carcass. A straight cut down the belly joining the four cuts you have made, and then using the back of your scalpel to ease the skin off works well.
The head of some animals is difficult to skin, and can be a messy business. If you don’t need it, cut the skin at the neck and dispose of the head with the other remains. Hares and rabbits may be easily skinned, although removing a hare’s mask can be a trial. Moles, and bisams are fairly easy, and squirrels are slightly more difficult, but after you have done your first one or two it becomes fairly easy. If you get them for nothing, it does not matter much if you muck one up.
Just a small but very important point. If you keep stuff like this in your freezer, make sure it is properly wrapped and labelled. If your wife, girlfriend, etc, removes such a package and unwraps it, they will not generally be overly enthused upon viewing the contents. (Screams issuing from the cellar may well be a sign that something similar has occurred).
When you have the skin off, take a piece of board and carefully nail (use galvanised roofing nails they do not rust and discolour the skin) the perimeter of the skin to the board, fur side down, stretching it as you go, when the skin is stretched fairly tight on the board carefully remove any fat or flesh left on the skin by scraping with a flat bladed knife or similar.
Then powder the skin with a layer of salt and borax sufficient to cover the skin entirely, a few crystals of napthalene or paradichlorbenzene suffice to keep insects away. Put it in a cool dry place away from draughts and the likelihood of other animals getting at it. Inspect it at least once a day adding salt and borax if there is any trace of wetness. When completely dry, remove from the board, shake off the excess salt/borax mixture, wash and dry the skin, and proceed as already described for feathers.
When washing, do not leave the skins on the water for too long, as otherwise all the hair will fall out! This is known in the trade as “slip”.
Small animal skins require no further treatment.
It is not necessary to tan the skins, this is a far more difficult process. If the skin is a little stiff this is not a problem, if you really need a flexible skin as for zonker strips or similar materials, then rubbing glycerine into the skin will soften it considerably, Nivea hand cream also gives good results. If you have difficulty obtaining industrial borax (Pharmaceutical Borax is very expensive) then a mixture of wood ash and salt works as well. The ashes from a charcoal grill, or any clean wood fire, are excellent as long as there is no fat or oil left in them.
Foxes, rats and some other animals carry dangerous diseases in many parts of Europe, and if you are not sure how to handle the carcass then leave it alone! It is impossible to give general advice here, you must inform yourself of the local regulations and conditions.
If you are at all squeamish it is best not to try this at all, and you should on no account carry out such operations in your kitchen or anywhere similar, not if you want to stay married for long, or have no particular desire to become homeless at short notice, quite apart from the hygiene problems which may arise. Do it in an outhouse or garage or on a table in the garden, and dispose of the remains carefully. Burying them is usually the best solution.
If you do bury things like this, do not do it at dead of night by torchlight, this will get you talked about if anybody sees you, and make sure you bury the stuff deep enough so that the neighbours dog can’t dig it up and transport it proudly into your best friends house for supper. This sort of thing is liable to strain even the most abiding friendship!
Game animals are subject to stringent laws as well in some countries. Taking a dead deer or wild pig found at the side of the road for instance may well be considered poaching, and may get your car confiscated and result in fines or even worse. Protesting that you were not the person who hit it in the first place will avail you nothing.
Simply possessing some animal skins is also illegal, irrespective of how the material was obtained. Use your common sense here. It is unlikely that anyone will complain if you find a dead mole and use its skin, but do not go trafficking in mole skins and the like, or shouting about your collection at an animal rights meeting. Some of these people think even dead animals have rights, and may unfortunately even be correct in this respect in some places.
Before approaching some animals be absolutely certain that the animal is dead. Even comparatively harmless animals may bite or kick you if they have been seriously injured and are in pain, and the results may not be to your liking. If you do find animals injured but alive at the roadside, call the appropriate authorities, do not attempt first aid or putting the animal “out of its misery”, this may well be misconstrued by other road users, and is unlikely to help anyway.
Make sure you have current anti-tetanus jabs etc. before you do anything like this as well.
After a while you will develop an ‘eye’ for road kills, and will notice them almost automatically without it even distracting you from your driving, with experience you can tell sometimes at a glance whether or not your sighting is worth retrieving.
Common sense is also very important here, even if you see a whole flock of dead and comparatively undamaged Jungle cock all with perfect nails (the “nails” are the beautiful enamelled eye feathers used a lot on salmon flies), lying at the side of a three lane motorway, consider carefully before attempting to retrieve them, and if this should appear in any way dangerous DON’T DO IT!
The same applies to other roads, slamming on the brakes, and doing a racing U-turn in order to inspect a likely sighting is not a good idea, far better to carry on to the next turnoff, turn around and check carefully for traffic, before attempting retrieval.
Try not to make a song and dance about it either, grab your polythene sack and your shears, get the stuff into the sack and disappear as unobtrusively as you hopefully arrived. You will not believe the amount of curiosity your apparently eccentric behaviour may engender in some people should you be observed, even on minor country roads, and this could be dangerous as well. Some people get very incensed indeed at people “who go around mutilating harmless animals for fun,” whether legal or not, it is best to avoid confrontations of this nature.
I wish to stress here that I would under no circumstances advocate the killing of any animal in order to obtain material for fly dressing purposes, protected or otherwise. It should be clear that we are talking here of dead animals found at the roadside or in similar circumstances, whose demise is a result of accident. I like to think of this as natural recycling, the remains would often only rot at the roadside, if I did not use them.
The same goes for material obtained from hunters, friends etc, the feathers or fur would invariably end in the bin, and the animals concerned were killed for other reasons, usually food. I see no good reason not to use things that would otherwise be wasted. Furthermore in all the years I have been driving I have never personally hit an animal, I even slow down or stop when frogs are crossing the road.
I am prepared to admit that this is more due to luck than absolute intent on my part, as I have seen situations where the driver of a vehicle had no chance to avoid hitting an animal, I am nonetheless proud of the fact.