Durham taxidermist creates new nature haven at Burnopfield

A COAL miner turned taxidermist who spent 30 years preserving dead animals is now turning his hand to the conservation of living creatures.

Eric Morton, who was a taxidermist at the Great North Museum

A COAL miner turned taxidermist who spent 30 years preserving dead animals is now turning his hand to the conservation of living creatures.

Eric Morton, who retired from the Great North Museum: Hancock Museum in Newcastle two years ago has transformed 16 acres of land in Durham into a nature haven.

The site at Burnopfield close to his home has been a labour of love and he has transformed a disused embankment into a meadow with wild flowers and indigenous trees that’s become home to dozens of species of the county’s wildlife.

Eric, who has worked on the project with his wife Lyn, said: “I felt that having got my living from wildlife I should put something back. It’s a thank you, I don’t get any money from it – it’s just a gesture.

“There are bats, insects, tawny owls, bird boxes and ponds I’ve put in. I’m putting the trees in and letting the hedges grow. Most days I’m down there working on it. I don’t do too much though, the animals know best.”

The private wildlife haven also has a stone circle which Eric created using ancient rollers, levers and pivots systems to drag one tonne slabs of rock into place.

He said: “The neighbours said they couldn’t watch me do it – one wrong move and I’d have been crushed. I like adventure though, in the mines you didn’t know if you were coming out alive. I’ve had the roof come down on me. I’ve nearly been crushed by gateposts, every time I think – if you’ve not died, you’ve won!”

Brought up in a woodland lodge on the Ravensworth estate in County Durham with no running water, gas or electricity, Eric was surrounded by the region’s wildlife as a child.

His first attempt at taxidermy was at the age of 13, when he tried ‘and failed’ to stuff his pet canary Dickie.

He said: “The history of taxidermy is missed from the history books. Every village in the 19th century had a taxidermist. It was to do with the industrial revolution and agriculture giving way to industry, and people wanted something in their homes that tied them to their childhood.

“Some taxidermists often had two jobs, the one round here was also a barber.”

After 14 years working in Watergate, Kibblesworth and Marley Hill Collieries he applied for a job with the Hancock Museum, then under the directorship of Tony Tyneman in 1975.

Describing his appointment as a “risk” for bringing a man who dug coal into the world of museums, he set about learning the craft from the museum’s retiring taxidermist David Burley.

His first job was stuffing a hedgehog and his most memorable was stuffing a tiger that had escaped from Belfast Zoo at the height of the Troubles.

“Apparently the night it escaped in the city was the quietest the streets had been for weeks. The police found it the next morning in a pond in the park. It had dived in and had a heart attack and died.

“They called me and asked me if I wanted it and I said, ‘yeah I’ll have that’ and it’s now on display at Sunderland Museum,” said Eric.

During his time at the Hancock, which is run by the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, he was also in charge of the upkeep of the museum’s incredible collection of stuffed animals by museum founder John Hancock from the late 19th century were.

The conservation expert is now so in demand for his expertise on wildlife since retiring that he is busier than ever. Another string to his bow is his expertise on 18th century clocks and he also gives lectures at the British Museum as well as consulting for auction houses in the North East.

Eric said: “I was the museum’s last taxidermist and I got there through luck and fate. Now since I’ve left work it’s about the feeling of place and being rooted in the soil. Being in the fields, you really feel part of it.”

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