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Neil's lesser-spotted wildlife wonderland 18.06.10

by Linda McGrory

A LONG-lashed leopard gazes nonchalantly at a zebra in the jaws of a lion. A rare harpy eagle has its claws out for lunch while a lesser-spotted Clonmany corncrake and whooper swan from Inch proudly hold their own.
It may appear an unlikely menagerie of wildlife, but it is also a little known fact that Inishowen is home to one of the top three private collections of mounted wildlife in Ireland and Britain.
Meet Neil Gerard Doherty - builder by day and one of the world's leading collectors of taxidermy in his spare time. Neil, who has more than 1,500 exhibits, opened his exotic collection to the media for the first time when recently visited his wildlife hideaway in the Clonmany countryside. Anyone seeing this vast collection is likely to run short of adjectives, but spectacular, amazing, unique and overwhelming are descriptions that barely suffice. It is thought to be the biggest private collection of taxidermy in Ireland outside of the national museums.
The 55-year old contractor and birdwatcher, first began collecting in 1969 at the age of 14 and distinctly remembers when and where his passion first began.
"It started in 1965 when I was ten years
old and was visiting an uncle in Limerick called Willie Shiels. He took me to visit a neighbouring farmhouse where I saw a pair of pheasants in a glass case. I thought they were the nicest thing I had ever seen," he smiled. "I saved my pocket money and bought my first bird when I was about 14. It cost me 3 and the hobby just grew from there." Married to Anne with five children, Gerard, 27, Shane, 25, Mark, 23, Barry, 20, and Vivienne, 17, Neil's collection was, in the early days, housed in the family home. But it grew so large, he had to move them to specially-built units at the back of his house. The animals are housed in three immaculate exhibition spaces, mounted in polished glass cases hand-made by Neil with the help of Shane.
So admired is his collection in taxidermy circles, he often receives phone calls from collectors all over the world offering to buy a particular one, or tipping him off about a rare find he might be keen to purchase. But the local man is so selective and precise about what he chooses, he is unlikely to ever part with a single piece.
And has he any favourites? One is a crested serpent eagle mounted in the 1800s by the world-renowned taxidermist Roland Ward of Piccadilly, London. His most recent acquisition is an extremely rare, silver Norfolk hare, marked by a recessive gene that only turns up every 30-50 years. The collection includes a vast array of birdlife and creatures from all over the world including birds of paradise, albatross, black storks, an African buffalo, lynx, blue wildebeest and Canadian timber wolf. Rare Inishowen creatures feature widely too including a corncrake that Neil found dead on Gortfad Bridge in June 1989 and a great northern diver bird brought to him after it got caught in a fishing net in Leenan Bay, 18 years ago. While an avid collector, he is not himself a taxidermist, and leaves the intricate work to the experts in the age-old craft. But the unassuming local is also a bird watching expert and, might tell you in
passing, that he often leads groups on bird watching safari to Africa. One of his friends, an Afrikaans farmer, recently bought a 35,000-acre farm in Mozambique and Neil is now looking forward to soon going there on one of his annual trips to Africa.
Meanwhile, he tells the story of how he left a sea-port security officer speechless when he was ferrying his largest piece home to Inishowen through Cairnryan in a Hi-Ace van four years ago.
"The security man was a bit taken aback when he asked me 'what do you have in the van?' and I replied 'a lion'," he laughed. For many years, Neil only showed his prized collection to family, friends and a few select visitors. However, at a garden party at his home to celebrate his and Anne's 25th wedding anniversary in 2006, more than 100 of his guests were gob-smacked when they happened upon the wildlife wonderland in the early hours of the morning. They persuaded him to open his collection to the public. Visitors can now go and see this fantastic attraction at the Inishowen Wildlife Museum not far off the main road, in Gorfad, Clonmany.
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