Porcupines are not an animal i know a lot about. I didn't encounter any on my previous visit to Ontario in 2005, and only think of them as an exotic creature far removed from anything we have in the UK. Apparently we do actually have porcupines in warmer parts of Europe- Italy has an indigenous species and there are 11 Old world porcupine species that inhabit Asia, Europe and Africa!
My only encounter with porcupines has been via their quills. My great grandma had this beautiful old box. The style is probably from somewhere around Ceylon and lots of them were produced for tourists in the 19th and 20th centuries. She spent time in austrailia as a child, but beyond that, I have NO IDEA where she got it. it used to house her collection of buttons, some of which were very old.. I remember a set that were hand painted with Spanish flamenco dancers, I was entranced with them as a young child.
The creatures themselves are quite large. in body plan they are actually very similar to beaver, and even their skulls are nearly identical. Beaver eat the bark of trees, and so do Porcupines. More than once we saw the tell tale damage to trees and scatterings of pine needles on fres snow indicating where a 'porky' had been feeding somewhere above. On the last day of trapping camp Kye took us out to look at Hare trails and how to set snares for them in amongst the trees. While searching out the trails of double exclamation marks that show the hares front and long rear feet, I spotted a low, wide bumbling trail of something else, from a patch of damage on a pine, off into the woods.
Kye immediately Identified it as a porcupine and it became a tracking exercise. The trail itself wasnt very long and its entirely possible it moved as we came up the hill. The trail terminated in another pine. The snow underneath was carpeted with very fresh needles. A few seconds later Tessa spotted the animal itself, surprisingly high up, and incredibly well camouflaged. Its dark brown bristles blending perfectly into the clumps of pine needles. Can you spot it?
In the wild they have very few predators. the prickles are very sharp, but are also barbed. I got several stuck in my fingers while dealing with the adult porky the the guys shot. Fishers are about the only animals quick and fearless enough to take them on. The trouble is that their natural defenses aren't much use against an arrow, or a bullet. And while they aren't protected exactly, its deemed bad form to kill them unless its a case of survival, or protection of property ( they sometimes develop an interest in certain building materials, one kept nibbling Dave and Kyes house last year!) We left this one be, after swearing not to tell the Hunters where we'd seen it. The porcupine the guys got was big- i don't know if they get any bigger than that, but it appeared to be an adult to me, especially looking at the tooth wear.
There is a mention of a porcupine in Hatchet by Gary Paulsen- one comes into his shelter at night shortly after he crash lands in the wilderness. In the complete darkness he doesn't know what it is- but is aware of a horrible musty smell or rot and graves' in panic he throws his hatchet at it, and accidentally hits a piece of flint embedded in the wall of his home creating sparks which eventually give him fire and make his survival more likely.
anyway.. I digress...
I'd never been able to imagine what a porcupine might smell like, but trust me when I say they are.... Pungent. A lot of people won't eat them because of this and also for their pretty grotty habit of just pushing their faeces out of their rocky dens to form a vast terrace of old turds.... Lovely! (T he underside of his tail was covered in the stuff and i now regret not trying to salvage it because some tribes used them to make hairbrushes which is very interesting! The long bristly guard hairs, fur and quills are also used for ' hair roaches' a type of headdress, which is still an important part of ceremonial regalia, usually for men rather than women, though I may have to have a go at making one, once I've done some more research.
We started by trying to 'pluck' the animal, putting the quills in my washbowl ( which has been used for many things, but which I NEVER imagined would get used for that!) but on a fresh kill rapidly heading into rigour mortis, the quills were hard to remove. We did it outside, and though the weather wasn't that cold, it was cold enough to make fiddly prickly jobs unpleasant. In the end I skinned him and took out the prickles when we were in the hotel by which time they had loosened.
I was interested to eat the meat, but to be honest it was one of the most unappatising items of game I've encountered... the smell is partly to blame, but mostly because I've NEVER seen an animal so absolutely riddled with threadworms. We did eat some of it in a stew, and the remainder went into Dave and Kyes freezer. I kept the skull, and the quills. Once it was stewed up with all the vegetables, otter meat, a bit of wine and all sorts of other goodies it was delicious- very dark and rich.
I have yet to make anything with the quills yet, but I am putting together some ideas. I will be enlisting the help of some friends who do a lot of vegetable dyeing to color some. But the possibilities are pretty endless! I would really like a buckskin waistcoat with quill work and beading.... or a pouch made of some of the beaver tail, and beaver feet skins... and a knife sheath. But as always I don't really want to just copy an original piece- it feels rude, so when the time comes I'll look at original ( indigenous made) Pieces to understand how they were done, then try to put my own twist on it. Watch this space! Meanwhile feast your eyes on this lot- ( Ebay, Etsy and Pinterest)