FOOD FOR THOUGHT: In Praise of Possums

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

Possums don’t destroy forests

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

Possums are no threat

… 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.






Ironic isn’t it that those same people who rail against introduced species are most likely supporters of allowing immigrants and so called ‘refugees,’ followers of the most violent and intolerant religion on the planet, to move here knowing full well they have neither the skills nor the intention to integrate and will inevitably cause massive problems just as they have in the rest of the civilized West?

There are four at our house, you are welcome to come get them before they chew through the summers entire orchard crop. Be quick.

Sonya Roxborough can you please supply your scientific, peer reviewed information that proves possums in NZ are not slow breeders as in my experience as a possum trapper they produce one young per annum!

Sue Boyde please produce you evidence that 70+ herds are Tb positive as this is a lie!
Produce it or but out!

OK, so this possum issue has got right under the skin of the poisoners and rightly so, when their pet money making “predator” the possum has been shown for what it is (an innocent animal that has been vilified to keep those taxpayer dollars rolling on in!).
Possums do not predate on birds or eggs as the scientific autopsy evidence shows and as well as that they have replaced Moa as a seed dispersal agent to keep our native plant population producing.
Why is it that Ospri (another money sucking agency) released 256 possums infected with Tb into one area? Incidentally injecting them via their footpads as all other ways of giving them Tb failed!
It’s like killing off measles worldwide and reintroducing it to sell a drug that prevents it because you own the manufacture of such a drug!
I was a possum trapper so don’t try and bullshit me you city dwellers with vested interests!
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is no scientist and the rhetoric she expouses is just that, rhetoric and the whole Erma reexamination of 1080 was a farce too! I challenge her to have a one to one with the likes of Quinn Whiting O’Keefe or Clyde Graf on Televison ! She unfortunately has not one qualification to justify making the comments she does and it shows!

Sadly Possums have no place in NZ forests. They are a recent human import and a major pest to both flora and fauna. They are omnivores so eat chicks and eggs. Which have little ‘solid’ bits so not surprisingly rarely show such at autopsy of the possum. They eat invertebrates. But worse of all they eat foliage in a completely different pattern to the native foliage browsers so are causing forests to decline. they do not have an important role in the health of the forest. You will not find peer reviewed science supporting this. Please read the independent PCE report into 1080 and why possums are a pest.

It seems very hard to get through to people like Sue Jensen Boyde, that New Zealand is Tb free, and what’s more, has been since at least 2007. It was questions to the house by Richard Prosser in 2016 that revealed that on the basis of autopsied stock, the level of Tb was no more than 0.0019% over years 2007 to 2015. As you can see from the link to the OIE, the world standard for Tb free is a level of disease no greater than 0.1%. NZ is far below that.
Further, despite shaggy movies and wild claims, TbFree has established no epidemiological link from possum to cattle. I successfully contested before the ASA the claims by OSPRI that possum contributed to nearly half of all Tb in cattle. It was on the basis of evidence, the tribunal found against them and that the claims were false.
Kea and other birds have been under assault by poisoning in their environment from Forest Service in the 1960s and later by DoC and TbFree. In a 2011 drop at North Okarito using “kea repellent”, nearly 80% of a radio tagged population were confirmed to have succumbed to 1080. As it was in the nesting, God knows what the full toll was. Just remember, in the 1960’s, kea populations were assessed at around 200,000. Current populations are around 2000 or 1% of their former levels. A few possum under the same pressure of 1080 poisoning did not do that on their own, they needed help from DoC and TbFree to do the job

I well remember the local Akatarawa Forest over 25 tears ago full of possums and rats and deer and pigs etc. In fact riddled with introduced species. But I also remember the vibrant birdlife, the larger insects and aquatic life such as eels and trout.
I’m even certain I had more than one visit from a North Island robin.
Compare that to today after all the liberal appliations of 1080.
The term “Silent Forest” is completely appropriate.
Although some are making a slow comeback, it’s only till GW come back again with their mass eco-poisoning and we’re back to the Silent Forest once more.
As Joni Mitchell would say
“Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees”
Although in our case 1080 – the worst poison to be unloaded on us ever!

There are some deluded people who don’t understand that NZ’s vegetation is adapted to strong browsing pressure. The adaption occurred from millions of years of moa and other bird browsing, even insect browsing. (Source Seminar “Moas, Mammals and Climate Change in the Ecological History of NZ”.)
In 1994 senior Landcare Research scientist Graham Nugent told DOC at a “Possum Pest Workshop” that the 70 million possum figure was “a back of a cigarette packet calculation”. Even so he said, 70 million possums would consume only 15% of the daily foliage production of NZ’s vegetation.
On TB, possums have been wrongly blamed. To be Tb free a country must be under 0.01%. NZ is under 0.004%.

The biggest spreader of Tb is the stock truck. No fault to farmers because Animal Health Board (now OSPRI) uses the archaic skin test which has a 20% error rate. So infected cattle are unwittingly transferred and sold.

Possums could be a resource to be harvested for both fur and meat.

In a world crying out for protein its absurd.

Of course, DOC’s and OSPRI’s pea-brained response is to toppers public lands with 1080-first invented as an insecticide, it kills anything and everything that bigness it. It’s an ecosystem toxin. – Anthony

He’s no Steven King, this Steer, is he?

Steven King saved the Pureora forest from logging and now works tirelessly against pests and more importantly invasive plants. New Zealand now has more introduced plant species than natives.

What sort of loopy editorial policy do you possess – this sort of nonsense is likely – if it gains traction – to end up with many native species becoming extinct.

Is that what you want?

Jamie Steer must be pleased to have found another outlet for his opinion, and it is given gravity because it’s the subject of his THESIS. You do know that a thesis is a theory, formed, researched and defended – but not necessarily correct?

You really should be more responsible.

More about New Zealand’s forests and their preservation here, in a reputable science-based publication:

I suggest you check some of your so called “facts”. The possum is an omnivore, it is not a particularly slow breeder (despite what Wikipedia may tell you) and yes, along with other introduced pests they are destroying our forest ecosystems. This article is an extremely biased piece of advertising for possum products. In most areas the possum fur and meat trade has continously failed to keep possum numbers adequately low to help New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity.

This is food for thought, because it contains very little thought, just motivated thinking. The issue around possums, other predators, and 1080 are very clear, and fully laid out in the 2011 report on 1080 produced by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It’s contents are broad ranging, peer reviewed, and conclusive, and form the backbone of policy around species protection work currently, and will do for the foreseeable future, until there are major advances in methods or materials for the job. Any self motivated attacks on present policy designed to impede species protection need to be seen for the deliberate obstructionism they are.

Read it again its far from conclusive. By its own admittance its inconclusive. Its accepted and rubber stamped which does not make it conclusive.

TBFree only autopsies possums in areas that they consider are ready to be declared effectively free of bovine TB. It’s not a surprise that possums from such areas are not shown to have TB on autopsy. Possums on the West Coast where there are still some 70+ infected herds would be a different story. People who want to make money from possum fur love them. People who like native mistletoe and other such possum delicacies, people who value kea and other native birds, we don’t like them so much. Look at the link to see a possum eating a kea chick.

Re Kea baby being eaten by possum you would have to have a great imagination. You must remember that doc kill Kea on the west coast at rates as high as 80 per cent

My figures were a bit out of date. I see that only in 2013 did the number of infected herds go below 100 nationwide – down to 91 cattle herds and 7 deer herds. But by last year, there were only 43 infected herds – most of them on the West Coast and north Canterbury/Marlborough being the second most frequent.

TBFree has made great progress. It’s great that they are on schedule to eradicate TB in herds by 2026, and TB in possums by 2040. We certainly don’t want them to stop now, and let TB come back the way it did in the 1990s.

Mary, to see what’s in that video you only have to have eyes.

Thank you Susanne for this link to the ODT article. (It’s author made the first comment on our story.) We will be doing a follow up article over the next week on exotaphobia, which Ecologist Jamie Steer researched for his doctorate paper in 2016.

As long as you’re interviewing Jamie Steer, could you please clearly ask him what he believes about possums with respect to effects on forests and infecting cattle with bovine tuberculosis? In his view, is all that stuff LIES as Roger Childs is saying here?

I’ve loosely followed his statements about the goals and ethics of what many in New Zealand want to do with respect to wiping out pests (and arguing with opinions of the best approach), but I’ve not yet heard him overtly dispute the generally accepted scientific understanding of what those pests are doing.

Do the detractors of possums not read the information that Bill has presented in this article. Humans have destroyed more forests than possums ever could and a 250 kilogram Moa would have made a big impact on the bush. Lew

We must not forget that possum have an important role in the maintenance of the health of the forest. They are about the only surrogate for the original forest browsers which were the many birds like kakapo, Fincshe’s duck, kereru and kaka which helped open up the forests above the moa browse line. Most of them were extinct, or at least functionally extinct from the original human invasion by Maori.
It was Dr Caughley who noted the forest without browse is in an unnatural state – there is clear evidence of that in problems like kauri die back and fungal diseases in kamahi and other browse tolerant trees noted by forest ecologist Bellingham.
In a properly managed forest, industry would not be dictating the possum take, but proper forest managers, in managing the health of the forest would control the take in keeping with the requirements for forest health.