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Proceedings of the First Symposium on Marsupials in New Zealand

Topic 7: Exploitation Of Possums For Fur And Meat

page 257

Topic 7: Exploitation Of Possums For Fur And Meat

CUMMINS. One of the main aims of the symposium organisers was to get people talking together across their particular areas of interest. There are those who regard marsupials as pests, there are those who see them as a resource, and those who are interested in them for their own sake. We have already heard about basic research, and about aspects of their management and control. Now I would like to hear the view of those concerned with the meat and fur industry. In the case of the possum, how do you feel management of the animal as a resource balances with its deleterious effect on the environment?

CAMPBELL. I see the only way you can maintain your costs without going to the country for money all the time is to join up with some commercial enterprise, and the worldwide market is there. I can't add much on the other aspect of your question, except that I don't like seeing such a gross outlay on control.

SYNNOTT. I will comment only in my own field, as a representative of Consolidated Traders Ltd. Our job is buying skins from possum trappers and preparing the skins for export. Government statistics provide export figures. In the July-June export year of 1972/73, 1,240,112 skins were exported, and the net return was just over $2,000,000. Prior to that year there were large fluctuations from year to year. In 1973/74 the figures were 1.57 million skins and $3,869,000; 1974/75 1.79 million skins and $4,637,670; 1975/76 1.58 million skins and $4,379,828; and the first 3 months of the 1976/77 year 229,000 skins and $575,000. I would anticipate that over the complete 1976/77 year the figures would again be 1.4–1.7 million skins*. These figures represent the external earning power of the skins, not the taxation power which is paid at source, unless you have a dispensation. So the possum skin is quite a profitable item for the country. As for the meat of possums, I prefer to leave that aspect wide open; we had a rabbit industry and used to export rabbits years ago, and there is still hare meat about. There is an untold potential as a meat resource if you kept the poison factor in mind and if you could get the necessary hygiene standards.

page 258

CUMMINS. I got the impression yesterday that you felt the skins you were getting into the market represented only a fraction of the animals that were actually getting killed or trapped.

CAMPBELL. The average trapper would throw 10% away as being uneconomical to take out.

PRACY. A problem regarding a possum meat industry is transportation and hygiene. Access to stock is not so bad on marginal farmland but in areas of indigenous forest there are problems. Regarding hygiene, the animals have to be skinned pretty well immediately after death, but skins are not usually taken off warm possums; there would be a risk of damaging top quality skins. Then you have the problem of getting the animals from the area of recovery to a point where they can be hygienically handled under the meat regulations.

WHITE. Mr Chairman, could I ask, through you, what Consolidated Traders Ltd. think about a complete devaluation of the possum?

CAMPBELL. I am in the situation of having had a rabbit industry trade taken away from me some years ago. Yes, I think it could be on the cards, but at what expense to the country are you going to devalue? What would we be getting back for our effort on a cost/benefit basis?

CUMMINS. It does seem to me in running this symposium, we should come up with a complete balance sheet of the possum, its hazards as a pest, its damage and so on, and its potential as a market. I wonder if anyone in the N.Z. Forest Service has ideas about this?

ANONYMOUS. If I could follow on to what Mr Pracy said about not being able to get the meat out. Fairly stringent regulations were brought in concerning skinning of deer, and deer comes in with the skin on. I see no reason why possums can not be treated the same way, with heart and lungs brought in for government inspection.

PRACY. Before you can even consider devaluations you have to decide whether the possum is a pest of national importance or not. This would require pretty intensive surveys.

FRY. Who does the defining of a pest of national importance?

page 259

NELSON. The Pest Destruction Boards and numerous other people including Federated Farmers have pressurised the Agricultural Pests Destruction Council to call the possum a pest of national importance. So A.P.D.C. went to Government with such a proposal and we are now preparing to have a very hard look at the possum all over New Zealand. To this end we are circulating questionnaires to all Pest Boards and other interested people. Even if it is declared a pest of national importance I do not think there has been any intention of devaluing the possum; if there is possum damage affecting agricultural production, then it will be controlled.

McGILL. There is an obvious conflict in that any harvest assumes you get a sustained yield. This could not be tolerated in a diseased population. There is no indication that commercial hunting has anything but a very short-term effect on total numbers, so there is a conflict between commercialising animals in a disease area and control needs.

YOUNG. Is there something deeply significant about declaring an animal a pest of national importance, as opposed to simply recognising that it's a pest in the normal way that we would recognise another pest that is competing with man?

NELSON. The Agricultural Pests Destruction Council is responsible for overall small-animal control on rateable land in New Zealand. At present animals controlled are possums, rabbits, wallabies, rooks and hares. The rabbit is a national pest. We will destroy rabbits wherever they cause loss in agricultural production. A pest of local importance is declared in a district because it affects production within that district. An example would be the wallabies of Rotorua or of the Hunter Hills. It was mentioned today that approximately 90% of the Pest Boards of New Zealand have declared the possum a pest of local importance. It does not necessarily mean that they will be controlled. If it was a pest of national importance, in the event of a need they would be instructed by our organisation to carry out control, and that is the difference.

CUMMINS. Is there any need to bring possum control or exploitation under one unified control body? At the moment it appears to be under the aegis of several different government departments.

NELSON. It's only under two government departments. The N.Z. Forest Service operates on non-rateable land, state forest, scenic reserves etc, page 260 while Pest Destruction Boards operate on all rateable land and in some cases on unoccupied ground, Crown land, Maori land and state forest. Pest Destruction Boards work on other than rateable land only by agreement with the Forest Service state forests. They in turn will do some of our areas.

CUMMINS. This concerns animal control but what about possum exploitation or farming - dare I use that word?

NELSON. Exploitation would be covered by quite a large variety of organisations or individuals. There are some 6,000 private hunters using cyanide in New Zealand every year, so that means 6,000 people are supplying Consolidated Traders Ltd or their counterparts with skins. You also have possum trappers, including many school children, who trap and sell just the odd possum. There is a fairly acceptable market for whole carcasses, where the middle man is skinning them and supplying the skins to the traders. We do not recover carcasses in control work, which can cost up to $10 a hectare, though it can cost as little as $2 per hectare - this depends on the control method carried out.

* Corresponding figures taken from the N.Z. Official Yearbooks for 1979 and 1980 are: 1976/77 1.66 million skins and $6,632,000; 1977/78 2.72 million skins and $12,558,000; 1978/79 2.62 million skins and $13,533,000 - Editor.