Love your neigh­bour

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY ALAS­DAIR MCGRE­GOR PHOTOGRAPHY BY ES­THER BEATON

Of­ten seen as pests, pos­sums are wildlife we should wel­come.

It’s time to stop think­ing of pos­sums in our cities and sub­urbs as pests and ver­min and wel­come them in­stead as ur­ban wildlife.

POS­SUMS! WHY, THEY are as thick as f lies in the sum­mer­time,” be­gan a brief, joc­u­lar piece in The Gil­gan­dra Weekly back in 1923. The pa­per’s cor­re­spon­dent lamented about de­mol­ished veg­etable gar­dens and con­fessed that a “ha­rassed dig­ger” had taken the “closed sea­son law into his own hands one night and shot f ive of the ma­raud­ers in the act of help­ing them­selves to a smoked leg of mut­ton sus­pended from the kitchen rafters”.

Those 1920s mar­su­pial ma­raud­ers in the cen­tral west of New South Wales were un­doubt­edly com­mon brush­tail pos­sums. This brush­tail is one of 23 species in six pos­sum fam­i­lies found across Aus­tralia.

Al­most a cen­tury on, very lit­tle has changed on the fron­tier of our com­mu­nal re­la­tions with pos­sums. The com­mon brush­tail ( Tri­chosu­rus vulpec­ula) and its cousin the com­mon ring­tail ( Pseu­docheirus pere­gri­nus) are con­sid­ered an­noy­ing pests by many 21st-cen­tury Aus­tralian ur­ban­ites. And yet f lour­ish­ing pop­u­la­tions of brush­tails and ring­tails in and around many of our cities tell a re­mark­able story of sur­vival when set against the back­drop of se­vere pop­u­la­tion de­cline and near-ex­tinc­tion for some of our pos­sum species. Al­tered fire regimes; pre­da­tion by cats, dogs and red foxes; road trauma; cli­mate change; and habi­tat mod­i­fi­ca­tion and frag­men­ta­tion have all had an im­pact on pos­sum sur­vival.

An­i­mals as di­verse as Lead­beater’s pos­sum, of Vic­to­ria’s cen­tral high­land forests, and the diminu­tive moun­tain pygmy­pos­sum – found in just three tiny pock­ets of the Aus­tralian Alps – re­main un­der grave threat. In the south-western cor­ner of Western Aus­tralia, the de­cline of the western ring­tail pos­sum was f irst noted as far back as the early 1900s.

Fox pre­da­tion and land clear­ing ahead of agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment were to blame. And in re­cent decades, al­ready re­stricted habi­tat south of Perth has been fur­ther de­graded by rapid sub­ur­ban en­croach­ment, push­ing this iso­lated species onto the en­dan­gered list.

His­tor­i­cally, pos­sums formed part of many an Abo­rig­i­nal meal and are of­ten men­tioned in early Euro­pean ex­plo­ration ac­counts. When French ex­plorer Cyrille Laplace vis­ited Syd­ney in 1831, he de­scribed Abo­rig­i­nal women climb­ing for “lizards and pos­sums into the high­est tree-tops”, and hold­ing out strips Neigh­bours of the Royal National Park, south of Syd­ney, res­cued this com­mon ring­tail pos­sum (above left) after a bushfire. It was nursed back to health and re­turned to the wild.

A com­mon brush­tail pos­sum hangs by its tail to grab a snack (above right) from a feeder stocked with fruit and bird­seed that Tammy Bateman has hung near the back deck of her home in North Gosford, NSW Cen­tral Coast, which is close to bush­land. of pos­sum meat to lure birds into their hands. Pos­sums were also val­ued for their fur, sinew and spun f ibre. Once Euro­peans ar­rived, how­ever, the scale of Abo­rig­i­nal sub­sis­tence hunt­ing was quickly ren­dered in­signif­i­cant – the pos­sum wars had be­gun.

THE VAST NUM­BER OF pos­sum skins ex­ported his­tor­i­cally from Aus­tralia is im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify. But it’s an in­di­ca­tion of the size of the trade that in 1906 alone about 4 mil­lion brush­tail and ring­tail pos­sum pelts were mar­keted in Lon­don and New York. And, in the same year that The Gil­gan­dra Weekly’s cor­re­spon­dent was be­moan­ing the raid on his smoked mut­ton, an es­ti­mated 900,000 brush­tail pos­sums and wal­la­bies were shot just in Tasmania.

Com­mer­cial har­vest­ing for the ex­port fur and meat trade now only oc­curs on a small scale in Tasmania, where pos­sums re­main most abun­dant. Each year the take f luc­tu­ates sig­nif­i­cantly but in 2014–15, for ex­am­ple, com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors har­vested about 20,000 brush­tails. Many more are legally killed in Tasmania as a crop pro­tec­tion mea­sure.

In pre-Euro­pean times, the com­mon brush­tail pos­sum was abun­dant through most of con­ti­nen­tal Aus­tralia, Tasmania and many off­shore is­lands, but is now al­most gone from much of the arid and semi-arid zones. Its de­cline in the dry in­te­rior runs par­al­lel with the loss of other small mam­mals in what is termed the ‘crit­i­cal weight range’ of 35g to 5.5kg. (De­pend­ing on where they’re found, adult male brush­tails may weigh from 2 to 4.5kg.)

In con­trast, com­mon brush­tails are thriv­ing as alien free­loaders in New Zealand. They ar­rived in 1837 as a de­lib­er­ate, and cat­a­stroph­i­cally mis­guided, in­tro­duc­tion for the fur trade. The orig­i­nal in­dus­try of course failed, but 150 years later, and with a ram­pant ap­petite for New Zealand’s highly palat­able for­est veg­e­ta­tion, the pos­sum pop­u­la­tion had reached an es­ti­mated peak of 60–70 mil­lion an­i­mals!

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