Like most small children growing up in the early 1960s (and other children to this day, of course) I was fascinated by dinosaurs but I don’t ever recall giving that much thought to their bones. Artists’ impressions of their reconstructed bodies filled the children’s reference books that I devoured, alongside other books on more contemporary aspects of the natural world. Skeletons were, for the time being, a very casual interest. I was gifted my first skull at the age of ten, confidently assured by the family friend that it was a sandpiper’s skull (it was actually an oystercatcher though it took me five years to find that out) but I was fourteen when the osteological obsession finally took hold of me, and it has yet to loosen its grip.
At secondary school biology class in the early 70s, a young student teacher appeared, by the name of Mr Russell (Sir, sir… where are you now, and do you even know what you started?) who took us through the process of digestion, naturally beginning with the mechanics of chewing and eating. Mr Russell had brought with him a selection of real mammal skulls; sheep, dog, cow, even incredibly, a leopard (!) to demonstrate carnivore dentition against that of herbivores. I was spellbound and asked at the end of the lesson where he’d got them. “Borrowed from college”, he answered “but if you want your own, go out into the countryside and start looking!”
Mr Russell was only on a short teaching practice and soon returned to college with his specimens, however I took his advice and my collection developed rapidly from that point; sheep skulls, foxes, things the cat brought in (rodents, moles, birds… sorry!) within a couple of years, even a pony. Before much longer I was volunteering in school holidays at the nearest museum with a decent natural history collection, at which a most supportive Natural History Assistant (now Dr Jessica Winder) encouraged me to join the recently formed Biological Recording Group for Wales. It was at their twice yearly weekend meetings I first handled and set Longworth traps and learned the basics of mammal tracks and field sign identification under the guidance of Jim Bateman, then Keeper of Mammals of the National Museum of Wales.
So fast forward through half a lifetime, during which I was the weird kid in school who brought a dead pigeon back from a school trip to London… growing up into the weird guy in the office who picked up roadkill and semi-accidentally left it in an office filing cabinet over a summer weekend (oops… I have so many stories about this kinda thing). I now work for Shropshire Wildlife Trust, where it is practically de rigeur to collect roadkill or animal poo (not my thing, honestly that is really weird); while bone collecting is almost mainstream and taxidermy chic is suddenly desirable home décor in wider society.
I use my skulls to start conversations with the public about wildlife and natural history. I have somehow managed to re-invent myself as the @Skull_Bloke and having delivered several mammal bone ID workshops to local groups and other organisations over the last couple of years I am so pleased and honoured to have been invited to deliver a two-day bones workshop for the Mammal Society, right on my doorstep at FSC Preston Montford.
I joined Shropshire Mammal Group soon after its founding in 2009 and now edit our quarterly Newsletter.
I’ve noticed that by and large, bone finds are a somewhat overlooked means of obtaining mammal records. Of course we all know about owl pellet analysis; what mammalogist hasn’t experienced the thrill of teasing apart a pellet and pulling out vole and shrew fragments by the dozen? But pellet analysis skills tend to focus on the smallest of our small mammals; accurate identification of larger skulls, jaws and bone fragments needs patience and experience, and how many of us would be confident to identify a random bone found in the field?
Who amongst us could differentiate the skeletal fragments of a fox from those of a muntjac deer, a squirrel from a polecat, a badger from an otter; especially if the skull isn’t present? It is this knowledge gap that I am seeking to fill with the workshop.
Please do take a look at the course outline on the Training page of the Mammal Society’s website, and if the content appeals to you, please go ahead and book up. I’m really looking forward to meeting you all; there’ll be hundreds of bones from my own collection to examine and photograph, and I can promise we are going to have a uniquely enjoyable weekend!
Ric’s bones workshop takes place at Preston Montford on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 November to find out more/book click here. For more information about all of the other training courses we run throughout the year click here.