The possum is the most maligned animal in NZ. If you want to provoke a New Zealander tell them you like possums, or even that you’re indifferent – this elicits visceral and even xenophobic responses from what are normally quite measured people. Scientist, Jamie Steer
A native by now?
By Roger Childs
If it was a native animal we would be protecting it! But it’s an Aussie import let loose 180 years ago. If your forebears arrived in New Zealand three years before the Treaty of Waitangi, would you regard yourself as a “native” today?
The slow breeding possum is vilified, as Jamie Steer observes above. It was introduced in 1837 to start a fur industry and that business continues today. There were hundreds of liberations up until the 1930s, and it was only after World War Two that all hunting and trapping restrictions were lifted and the possum was categorised as a noxious pest.
Today all sorts of dirt is thrown at possums to justify trying to wipe them out. They destroy forests; they eat bird eggs and chicks; they spread tuberculosis to cattle; they have limited value.
The Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand continues to perpetuate the lies: Not only do possums destroy forests, they also infect cattle with bovine tuberculosis, threatening the country’s valuable dairy industry.
Destroying the myths
… researchers such as forest ecologist Bellingham are quite unequivocal: while possum can contribute to the demise of already old and dying kamahi, decline is primarily attributed to insect and fungal damage, water stress, storm damage and old age. Possum are not the principal agent.
Bellingham has elsewhere pointed out that canopy collapse in both rata and kamahi forest can occur where there are no possum. Bill Benfield in The Third Wave, referring to scientific findings
… study taken over three sites in South Westland revealed less than 0.01% of insect material and no traces of birds in the contents of 135 possum stomachs. The findings of Scientists Sweetapple, Fraser and Knightbridge, published in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology 2004
… over a ten year period, 124,000 autopsied possums showed an incidence of 0.04 per cent while 9830 possums autopsied last year showed zero incidence. Nathan Guy, Minister of Primary Industries, speaking in parliament in 2016 about levels of tuberculosis in possums
So possums don’t destroy forests; as herbivores they don’t eat birds, and in recent years they have had minimal Tb.
In fact, they are a valuable resource which is why they were originally introduced.
Possums: high value
Possum fur is soft and warm. Possum skins can be used to make clothing and possum wool is mixed with merino sheep wool to make knitting yarn. Possum meat has been found to have a high quality protein which is rich in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Some New Zealand companies use possum meat to make healthy pet food for cats and dogs. In the 1980s, possum meat was also exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia for people to eat. In these countries it was considered a special food delicacy and was called ‘kiwi bear’.
Is this a quote from the New Zealand Fur Council? No, it’s taken from the website of the organisation that wants to wipe them out: Predator Free New Zealand.(pfnz)
Possum industries employ 1500 people and earn more than $130 million each year. Demand for products such as clothing, golf gloves, footwear, furnishing, cat food and dog rolls is increasing.
Currently we are trapping and recovering fur from 20,000 possums a week. To meet the growing demand from our industry, we want to trap and recover up to 40,000 a week. That is 15 per cent of the total population of possums removed annually – and comes at no cost to the taxpayers. Fur Council chief executive, Neil Mackie
The possum has been part of New Zealand’s biodiversity for 180 years and today is a multi-purpose resource.
So does pfnz’s war on possums make any sense? You be the judge.