A Cruel Trick

Hunting possums

An invader and a hated pest, the possum is still, for better but mostly for worse, a feature of the bush. Ravaging our trees and native birds, and terrifying trampers who step out into the dark for a midnight dunny visit.

But before I go any further on the subject, let me say right off that I’m not going near the 1080 poison debate. It seems people have already made up their minds on that one, whether they are for or against. Some of the latter even coming to terrifying conclusions. But for all the anger in that debate, one thing that both sides seem to agree on is the need to rid ourselves of these creatures.

I’ve even shot one myself - the only animal I have ever killed except for fish, flies and the odd accidentally crushed bug. I was with a friend and his cousin in a Northland forest and it was my turn to use the one rifle we shared between us. I watched a fat possum crawl in the crotch of a tree, spotlighted by the cousin. Its eyes glowed red like someone in a family photograph, and I raised the rifle, took aim and fired. It slumped to one side. I slid the bolt, took aim again, and this time the possum flopped out of the tree.

One down, another 70 million to go. Unless you count the possum merino hat I was given one Christmas, this was my only contribution to a predator free New Zealand. Probably my last. I’m not really a hunter. Once after reading a lot of Hemingway, I had a nightmare that I was big game hunting. I chased some beast across the savannah, filling it with bullets only to discover that I had shot the family cat.

It was as early as the 1830s that settlers began to unleash possums in this country. How far we’ve come from the enthusiasm they had for setting these imported animals loose. Between 1837 and 1875, they introduced them to the bush in Southland, Auckland, Whanganui, Wairarapa, Canterbury and Kawau Island. Enthusiasm waned for fifteen years, and then they got stuck in again, spreading what were now New Zealand bred possums in the Westland, Grey and Buller districts. While a few possums were brought here as pets, the real impetus for their import was their potential as the raw material for a fur industry. An industry that has largely petered out, possum fur making up only one percent of the fur business.

But Possum numbers would skyrocket. They began a battle of their own, a war for food. As well as munching on native birds and their eggs, bats, wekas and invertebrates, they have eaten whole canopies of rata, totara, titoki, kowhai and kohekohe.

I can know all this and want them gone, yet still feel sorry for our possums. I think of seeing one crawl along a verandah railing in Australia. How cute I said, they’re cuter than the ones we have in New Zealand. I thought of ours as scraggly, snarling things. Hog nosed and red eyed. But they’re the same, someone had to tell me. It’s the same breed of possum in both countries. Our hatred of them had actually changed the way I saw them. Those unlucky possums, victims of a cruel trick. Victims, like our birds, of the view that nature is just a resource, another raw material to make someone rich.