Love your neighbour
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!