Feral fur proves both green and profitable

The hide of a vicious New Zealand pest is bringing hunters a good income while helping to minimise the environmental damage the animal brings to rural areas.

Trapper Stu Flett hangs out possum carcasses to dry in his garage at his home in Matapouri, on New Zealand's North Island. Erica Berenstein / AFP
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The brushtail possum, a cuddly looking marsupial protected in its native Australia, has become a reviled feral pest in New Zealand, with its fur providing a lucrative sideline for hunters who are supplying a burgeoning luxury goods industry.

"It's a hard living and it's not for everyone," says Stu Flett, a trapper who is hanging possum carcasses from a clothes line at his home on the North Island to dry their fur before it is stripped and sold.

The possums, which are the size of a cat and have no natural predators in New Zealand, devastate native forest and eat the eggs of rare birds, including the iconic Kiwi, as well as spreading bovine tuberculosis to livestock.

According to the New Zealand government's Department of Conservation, the nocturnal marsupials were introduced to New Zealand in 1837 to "establish" a fur industry, but they quickly spread out of control to the point where officials estimate there are now 70 million of them, outnumbering the human population almost twentyfold.

"They're seen as a pest, people will swerve to hit them on the road," says Jake McLean, a possum hunter. "They tear up gardens, kill trees and destroy wildlife. They're vicious little animals, really, when you get close to them."

A small but hardy group of trappers makes a living going into the bush to catch the animals, although most hunt them for weekend sport, earning some money from the fur, which fetches about NZ$100 (Dh300) a kilogram.

"The ones that take it seriously can earn NZ$40,000 to NZ$50,000 a year," Mr McLean says.

"They [the hunters] go and live in the bush, it's rough... they go into the ranges, where there are up to 10 possums per hectare.

"You're not living the good life when you're doing that; they're sleeping in tents or under flies [fly-sheets] on a river bed. Most do it for four or five years, then look to buy themselves a house."

Mr McLean was a full-time possum hunter until last year, contracted by the local council at Masterton, just outside of Wellington on the North Island, to go out for 10-day stints and eliminate the feral animals.

However, the demanding work proved too much and he now works at a hunting shop in Masterton, which buys the fur from trappers then sells it on to companies that turn it into luxury jumpers, scarves and gloves.

Dozens of collection points operate throughout New Zealand, providing raw materials to an industry the New Zealand Fur Council estimates is worth NZ$100 million a year and employs 1,200 people.

Possum fur is highly prized because its fibres are hollow, similar to that of polar bears. When the fur is blended with merino wool, it creates a super-soft fibre that is lightweight and provides excellent insulation properties.

Greg Howard, whose company Planet Green makes golf gloves from possum hide, says the industry harvests only about two million possums a year and could increase dramatically if promoted properly in export markets.

He says the ethical objections often raised against the fur trade did not apply to possums culled in New Zealand because they are seen as a feral pest that causes enormous damage to the environment.

"By doing this, we're helping to save the planet," he says. "So the market's sitting there and the government just needs to get in behind us. It's all there on our back doorstep and no one's doing anything about it."

However, the New Zealand branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the conservation group, says that while it supports eradicating possums, it still has reservations about basing a fur industry around them.

"WWF doesn't support commercial trade in possum fur as there is a possibility that companies that profit from the sale of possum fur have a financial interest in ensuring the survival of this pest species," it says.

Mr McLean says hunters also want to see possums wiped out in New Zealand, but believe they are so numerous they will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future, despite the best efforts of trappers and the government.

"I don't think they'll ever get rid of them; there's too many out there," he says.

* Agence France-Presse