The Brushtail Possum

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There's a petition going around, and I recall the Brushtail Possum

Submitted: January 18, 2020

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Submitted: January 18, 2020

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In response the Australian bushfires, there’s a petition floating round, so far with 3500 signatures, for New Zealand to take Koalas as refugees so they can settle into our environment… there’s not a shred of intelligence in the idea, and saying more would have me swearing and using insults that I haven’t used in years. As early as 1837 but more-so during the 1850’s Brushtail Possums were introduced into New Zealand from Victoria and Tasmania as a potential food source and to create a fur and pelt industry for the new settlers. A century later, there were 60 -70 million of them chewing through 21 000 tonnes of our indigenous foliage every night!

As part of my forestry training, I attended the Hunter Training School at Dip Flat, which was where we learned about self-sufficiency in the mountains, hunting methods and how to monitor what were in those days were called, ‘noxious animals’. If have to hunt animals, it’s helpful to know their preferred food, and animal preferences in vegetation were rated as old boots, bread & butter and ice cream. The Metrosideros species are ice cream to possums! These are iconic indigenous New Zealand trees, the Rata (two species) and the Pohutukawa, all have vibrant red flowers and especially in the case of South Island Rata, it’s a wide-crowned, canopy tree. It’s been nearly wiped out by possums!

Brushtail possums are carriers of tuberculosis, which poses a risk to out dairy and beef industry, which some might say is no great loss, but those industries help to run our country. If you happen to belong to the anti-beef or dairy brigade, read on. In Australia, Brushtail Possums are purely vegetarian, but here in New Zealand, they have adapted and eat the eggs and chicks of our indigenous birds and they also eat our large and rare indigenous land snail. Possums have contributed significantly to the near extinction of many indigenous bird and plant species. For 80 million years, our ecology developed with no land mammals, the only mammals were two species of small bat. Our birds were therefore vulnerable to mammalian predators and the ‘vegetarian’ Brushtail Possum became one of them. Those who are anti-beef and dairy should take note, because they are likely to be climate change advocates too, and are therefore concerned about a 6th extinction… the Brushtail Possum is a good example of how nature works and how adaptions occur. In this case I wish they didn’t!

In Australia, the Brushtail Possum has become rare, so we’ve sent some back. I wonder if that was a good thing and I wonder if they’ve continued their new-found omnivore habits over there. I’ve no information on that. But here in New Zealand the only good possum is a dead one, and the only really effective way of getting rid of them is with 1080 poison, which is controversial and likely, the same anti-beef and dairy people are the same folk who protest against it. There’s an irony in that. Also controversial are gin traps, or as we called them rabbit traps – perhaps controversial is the wrong word – more like, illegal. They are spring traps that clasp a leg, often breaking the bone, and the possum or rabbit has to stay put like that until the trapper comes along to kill the animal. Cruel? Yes, but back in the day, there was no alternative. I trapped and poisoned possums for years - even bought our first colour television with proceeds from the skins. I wouldn’t swap the experience for quids, working in the bush and wildness areas, teaches you things that are never taught in a classroom. The reason gin traps were banned was not because of cruelty but because some of our birds are flightless. And of course traps set in urban areas are likely to catch domestic pets…

It was easier to poison them, possums are vulnerable to cyanide, and I used rock cyanide in the old days,  graduating to cyanide paste later, but I think rock was the most effective, if a bit more dangerous for the operator. The possum didn’t need to ingest it, a sniff was enough and death was almost instantaneous. Cyanide caused burst blood vessels in the brain and lungs. A squeeze from the tube of cyanide paste about the size of a pea could kill five possums. But there had to be a lure, and usually I used flour to attract them by sight, after all they’re nocturnal. They’ve got a good nose too, so I added aniseed oil, but the trouble was they became bait-shy, another natural defence mechanism, so I used variously, oil of rose, oil of primrose, oil of orange, peanut butter and more. All worked for a while and when I finally ran out of lure ideas, I resorted back to rabbit traps.  

Anyone who hunts and skins possums earns their money. My hands would be pretty sore after skinning sixty in a day, occasionally I’d strike an old, red buck; they were the toughest and they didn’t fetch a good price either! The work really begins once the skin is off and the hunter is back at base. The tail has to be turned inside-out, the skin has to be stretched onto boards, nailed up, fleshed (and fatted) and hung to dry. Once dry, the nails are removed, the pelt cut off the board and brushing tidies the skin for sale. Possum skin fur coats are simply too hot, but scraps of skin can be used for trimmings and soft toys, mostly skins are used for final-polishing fine machinery. The fur has warmth qualities and is included into expensive garments so nowadays fur is plucked while the carcass is still warm. The fur falls off freely when the body is warm, but once cold it can’t be pulled. Plucking is easier, though I’ve only done it a few times. Modern traps leave the animal dead, so plucking isn’t an option, which leaves shooting as the best option, but night shooting isn’t practical in the wilderness areas, which brings us back to 1080 poison.

There’s a substantial resource out there which can’t easily be tapped, so the animals are no more than an expensive pest to control cost. My advice to the supporters of the Koala petition; screw up the petition and think again!  


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