Introduction and liberations
The first possum liberations in 1837 were unsuccessful, but that did not dissuade those who believed in a fur industry. The first possum population was established in 1858 in Southland. From then until 1922, 36 batches of possums were imported. By 1930, these animals and their descendants had been let loose in 450 locations around the country.
At first private individuals released possums, but from 1870 until 1921 acclimatisation societies took over the role. By 1921 the government prohibited further liberations, although trappers continued to release them illegally. Hunting and selling skins was regulated until 1946 when, after much debate, it was decided that possums were an environmental pest, and all protection was removed.
The first large-scale attempt to control possums was a bounty scheme which ran from 1951 to 1961. Eight million bounties of two shillings and sixpence were paid out for ‘possum tokens’ – the ears and a strip of fur. However, more than 75% of these animals were taken from near farms, picked off roads or caught in other easily accessible places. In the forests, possum numbers continued to grow.
Spread of possums
In the early 2000s, there were possums in almost all of mainland New Zealand. It is estimated that they occupied about 54% of the country in 1950, 84% by 1963 and 91% by 1980. The last areas colonised were Fiordland and Northland. In the 1960s there were virtually no possums in Northland, but by the mid-1990s there were 10–15 million.
Possums have been eradicated from a number of islands, notably Rangitoto, Motutapu, Kāpiti, Whenua Hou/Codfish, Whanganui and Tarakaipa, all of which have outstanding conservation importance.
Between 1980 and 1986, 19,612 possums were killed on Kāpiti Island. Bird counts between 1982 and 1988 showed that the density of birds doubled, even though rats were still present. Obviously, possums had played a large part in keeping bird populations low.
Early botanist H. B. Kirk did not see the possum as a pest. He wrote in a 1920 government report that he believed the animals could ‘with advantage be liberated in all forest districts except where the forest is fringed by orchards or has plantations of imported trees in the neighbourhood’. 1
Once possum populations started to soar, trappers began to make a living from hunting them. Throughout the 1970s prices were good. They peaked in 1981, when 3.2 million skins were exported. In more accessible areas, hunting reduced possum numbers.
The possum fur business is only 1% of the worldwide fur market by value. Traditionally possum fur has been valued for trimming clothes, but since the 1990s prices have been low, forcing hunters out of the industry.
Since 1993 the possum-product industry has diversified to use pelts, leather, fibre and meat (sold to Asian countries). Fibre is used by itself to make hats and gloves, or spun with merino wool and made into a soft and luxurious fabric.