Tanning fox pelts – from target to trophy

Foxes are a huge problem in Australia and have a massive financial impact on the farming community as well as decimating native animal populations. As a wily and intelligent creature they’ve long been a popular target among hunters and, with a bit of work and time spent, can also yield a nice trophy for the cabinet.

As most people hunt foxes in the winter months and at night, temperature is somewhat less of an issue but it’s important to remember that if any decomposition takes place the fur will start to slip (fall out) and the pelt is wasted. So as soon as possible the carcase should be put on ice, just as you would when you harvest an animal you intend to eat.

The skin should be removed within a day or so. Cutting techniques vary and are down to personal choice and desired outcome but there are plenty of instructional videos online so you’re sure to find one that suits your needs.

Even if you’re confident with cutting you might still become stuck at the tail. For this you’ll need two sticks, 15-20mm gum tree or something equally as hard. You can cut and pull back about four tail joints. Place the sticks on the top and bottom of the tail bone and grasp the sticks in your palm with the tail running between your middle and ring fingers. Hold the sticks very tight on the bone and pull toward the tip, pushing on the rump with your other hand (if the skin is otherwise removed you can stand the fox on its hind legs while pulling up).

There will be plenty of flesh to remove after skinning and this is where the hard work begins. Deburring the fur is a good idea as running the fleshing tool over a hard bur can cause a cut to the skin. A hair brush run through the fur back to front and front to back will remove any nasties.

If fleshing on a flat surface the fleshing tool supplied with a Leder tanning kit or just a small skinning knife will suffice. I start between the front legs, scraping down towards the tail in short strokes. You’ll see the flesh peeling back so keep working from side to side and gradually towards the tail, a bit like shaving the flesh from the skin. If you’ve taken the whole face and ears you’ll need to do some fleshing here too.

You can choose to keep the cartilage in the ears or carefully remove it leaving only the skin and fur on the back of the ears, as this can make things a little easier to deal with later in the process. If it’s a warm day and the skin starts to dry out, you can either keep wetting it down or salt it and finish fleshing straight before put it in the tanning bath.

If using a fleshing knife like those available from Pizzari’s tanning supplies, you’ll need a smooth curved surface like a large diameter poly pipe or similar. Using the same short-stroke shaving motion you need to anchor the skin with a clamp of some sort and, as the skin is relatively thin, it can be a good idea to use the back edge of the fleshing knife and be careful with pressure so as not to cut through the skin.

Small tanning kits can handle five or six fox skins so if gathering these will take a few weeks you must salt the skins as you collect them. Table salt will do, apply a generous amount over the whole skin side, fold it in half so the front legs are together and back legs are together. Then roll it up, place in a bag and keep refrigerated until you’re ready to tan.

Tanning solution manufacturers provide instructions on how to prepare the tanning bath and what to do while the skins are soaking and straight after for the drying and conditioning process. I use a 600mm x 900mm piece of 10mm mesh for drying and plastic clothes pegs to hold the skin flat. Make sure the skin is kept horizontal and out of the sun as you don’t want it drying out too quickly.

As you’ll see from the tanning instructions, stretching and conditioning need to happen during the drying process and always turn the skin fur-side up to make sure it dries properly at the appropriate time.

Fox skulls can be another trophy worthy of your time and I have one in my python enclosure. Easily removed at any vertebra, all you do then is cut away as much muscle as possible and boil for a few hours until all visible flesh has fallen away. The bottom jaw will have separated and the teeth fallen out so collect them before disposing of the water and flesh.

Sit all the parts in the sun for a few weeks until totally dry and perfectly white. Make sure the skull is completely clean of flesh then glue the bottom jaw back together, the teeth in and use Blu Tack to act as cartilage so the bottom jaw sits right and you’re done.

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