Salvaging velvet antlers

Joseph Nugent explains how to fill the freezer and secure a trophy at the same time

Each hunter’s motivation is without doubt a personal thing. For some, it is simply being outdoors engaging with nature, regardless of whether an animal is taken or not. For others, particularly those on the land, feral animal control is an outright necessity.

Many are seeking that elusive perfect trophy, while others are out to fill the freezer and provide for family and friends. I find myself firmly in the latter category, hunting primarily for venison, with any head taken being the byproduct, not purpose, of the hunt. As such, I sometimes take a stag in velvet.

Naturally, trophy hunters are reluctant to take a stag in velvet being mindful of losing a trophy head. While acknowledging the validity of this position, once an animal is taken for the freezer, a quick assessment of his rack could indeed provide an opportunity to actually salvage a set of velvet antlers, rather than discarding them. All is not lost. The assessment to be made is simply whether the underlying bone structure has reached a sufficient degree of maturity so as to be hard and stable, therefore lending itself to salvage. Being familiar with the growth cycles of deer and knowing what to look for in fully grown (if still velvet covered) antlers is a must.

Antlers are shed annually and are the fastest growing of any mammalian bone structure. Each antler grows from a point on the skull called a pedicle, with growth being driven by the stag’s testosterone levels. This development occurs via a process known as calcification, whereby cartilage growth is converted into bone.

The velvet seen on a stag’s antlers at this time provides the oxygen and nutrients necessary to facilitate bone development. During its growth cycle, the antler is quite sensitive, soft and malleable. However, towards the end of its development, it will be fully formed but still covered in velvet. If you have taken a stag at this point of his development, with calcification complete, a meat animal in velvet may yet result in a nice trophy. With a few extra steps his rack can be treated much the same as any other European skull mount.

The first step after a rough preparation of the skull by removing the bottom jaw and skin, is to strip the antler of all its velvet. To do this, soak the antlers overnight in freshwater. Doing this enables the velvet is to soak up some of the water, making it easy to strip. The stripping process is similar to skinning the head. Make long incisions up the back of the antler, from the base to the tip, branching off for each tine as needed. From there, carefully use a knife and a set of plyers to manipulate the velvet away from the hard antler bone underneath. Once free of velvet, proceed exactly as you would a standard European mount.

Follow this basic three-step routine with European mounts:

Step 1. Natural decay

After skinning and removing as much tissue from the skull as possible, secure the skull in a tree, safe from predators, for three weeks. This allows ants and maggots to remove most of the remaining soft tissue and the brain. With naturally coloured antlers, it is worth using the shade of a bush or tree to protect from the sun, as they may lose some colour over the three weeks if left exposed to the elements.

Step 2. Boiling

After the natural decay process has occurred, simmer the skull in a solution of freshwater and liquid detergent. Typically simmering for one to two hours, will soften and loosen the tissue allowing any remaining matter to be manually removed, perhaps by using a multi-tool to pull, cut and scrape anything that comes loose. Careful use of a hose or Kärcher type appliance can also hasten the cleaning-up process. It is important to inspect the skull and remove as much tissue as you can every 30 minutes or so, as you want to spend as little time as possible boiling the skull to avoid damaging the more delicate bone structures or losing the teeth.

Step 3. Whitening

After the skull is completely clean, it can be left to soak in a mixture of water and three per cent hydrogen peroxide. Use two bottles of hydrogen peroxide with five to seven litres of water and let the skull soak in this solution for about three days before allowing it to dry thoroughly in the sun for a further few days. This solution will not harm naturally coloured antlers, so don’t stress about the base of the antlers being submerged in the solution. It will only whiten the skull. It is important not to use bleach as a substitute during this process, as it can damage the skull, causing it to become brittle over time.

Step 4. Colouring (velvet antlers only)

Once the skull is clean and whitened, it is time to focus on the antlers themselves. Having been taken while in velvet, the antlers will not have been naturally stripped or rubbed by the stag. This is the process, which in the wild, would colour them and shape the tines. So, the antlers will be bone white.

To add a natural colour, treat as you would a cast antler. Boot polish, wood stain or even coffee grounds might be used to colour the antler. However, to achieve the most natural look, use potassium permanganate, also known as Condy’s crystals. Originally a disinfectant found on the shelves of most pharmacies, when repeatedly used in a highly concentrated dose, it creates a natural colour.

With Condy’s crystals, the stronger the better; pour ¼ of a bottle of the crystals into a small cup or container then add some water to dissolve all the crystals. Now simply apply regular coats (two is good) each day, allowing adequate drying time in between, until the desired colour is achieved. During this stage, place a bag over the whitened skull to protect it, as the colouring solution will stain anything it touches. Once at the shade you want, use some fine grit sandpaper to lighten the stain on the points to mimic the look of a naturally coloured set and highlight the pearling of the antler.

Job done, ready to be mounted to a board or directly on the wall. A memory preserved for years to come.

To the purist there is a definite window of opportunity each year to take a trophy head ‑ one fully formed, stripped, coloured and shaped by the stag himself. However, it is inevitable that the meat hunter will encounter a situation where an animal taken in velvet could, with a little work, result in a wall hanger and a freezer full of venison for the perfect double.

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