Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Possums and I (or is it me?)

Natureblog March 2011

I’ve had an on-again off again relationship with possums over the years. I’ve trapped them, shot them, eaten them, skinned them, dissected them, plucked them and dutifully patted pet ones. Possums make rotten pets. They have a brain half the size of a cat’s brain so you can’t train them to do much. They can’t retract their claws either so when they jump onto you it’s claws-first.

NZ Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

My first experience of eating one was as a child. The family was staying on a farm and my mother dished up what she called ‘turkey’. Being trusting children we ate the ‘turkey’. The truth came out later.

The name possum or opossum is a North American Indian word. Explorers familiar with the Virginian possum bestowed the name on the similar-sized animal in Australia. In fact, they are quite different. The Australian possum has a fluffy tail, has a single baby at a time and is a herbivore. The Virginian possum is a carnivore, has multiple babies and a bald tail and it plays dead. The Australian possum is more closely related to the kangaroo, koala and wombat than to the American possum. Both are marsupials however, giving birth to tiny babies which are nurtured in a pouch rather than inside the mother’s body as in placental mammals.

American Possum

They were introduced to New Zealand, at Riverton, in around 1865 in expectation that they would be the basis of a fur industry. They increased rapidly and soon their depredations on orchards made their sponsors regret their enthusiasm. With few enemies and with many palatable leaves, the population swelled and within a few decades was widespread in the three main islands.

When I had scouts we frequently trapped and ate them. “This chop has a foot on the end” announced a new scout, appalled by the discovery. “just eat it up lad,” said his leader, “It’ll make you grow big and strong.” Next camp he chased one up a tree shouting “I want your legs.”

“Here’s your breakfast kids” said Fred as he unzipped a tent, emptied a large, black possum from a sack and zipped up the tent again. It fought valiantly but was eventually subdued under a blanket and liberated. It made for the gear tent and hid in the utensil box. Hounded from there it clawed its way up the sacking of the occupied latrine. Disconcerted by the screaming it then fled into the pines and safety.

They got revenge a year later by wiring a possum carcass to Fred’s muffler. ‘Don’t get mad, get even,’ is a very satisfactory principle.

Once our trap stifled not a possum but a wild cat. It was in the frying pan sizzling away when the scouts came in for breakfast. They were used to possum and it was soon gone. I showed them the skin. There are grey possums, black and red possums but no tortoiseshell possums. “You said it was a possum,” they accused. “Well it tasted like a possum,” said one boy who always looked on the bright side. He draped the skin, catside in, over another scout’s head. “Just seeing what it looks like,” he said. “I’ll get Mum to make it into a hat for me.”

Will we ever solve the possum problem? Probably not. We can’t develop a disease because it would spread to Australia sooner or later and affect their marsupials. Trapping, shooting and poisoning have some effect but they are too numerous and too fertile to eradicate totally. There have been some successes. Kapiti Island is possum free now and so is Ulva although that island is now facing a re-invasion by Ship rats. In Fiordland, Pomona is possum-free and so are several of the other islands. You have to be vigilant though, possums stow away in boats and cars and even packs. I heard of a tramper who discovered after some time that his pack was unusually heavy and animated. He reached in and got bitten by a possum who had been scoffing his biscuits before the ride.

Fortunately possum fur has regained some of its former value and, blended with merino wool, it becomes Merino mink, a soft wool with exceptional insulating properties. Enquire about possum control from Environment Southland or your local Landcare or pest-busters group.

Lloyd Esler