Alien invasion: How the possum became public enemy No 1

They are protected in their native Australia. But despite their cute looks, these marsupial invaders have become such a menace to the environment in New Zealand that designers who use their fur are seen as national heroes, even by conservationists. Report by Kathy Marks

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In a workshop above a hairdressing salon, Teresa Angliss is rifling distractedly through dozens of small furry pelts piled up on the floor. It is just before Christmas, and Ms Angliss, an Auckland designer, is working flat out on her biggest commission to date. She is making a bedspread from possum skins. Sixty-six skins, to be precise.

Elsewhere, designers who work with fur earn the wrath of animal rights activists. But in New Zealand, they are considered national heroes. Indeed, environmentalists and wildlife campaigners are enthusiastic supporters of the country's fledgling possum fur industry.

To New Zealanders, the only good possum is a dead possum, and anyone who plays a part in their eradication is applauded. Possums may be cute, with their pointy ears and bushy tails; they are even a protected species in their native Australia. But in New Zealand the furry marsupials are regarded as enemy number one.

Brush-tailed possums have prospered and multiplied since a few hundred were imported from Australia in 1837. There are now about 70 million of them, compared with four million humans. They have advanced into every corner of the North and South Islands, munching their way through vast tracts of forest as they go.

In New Zealand, possums have no predators, apart from the car, and they pose a serious threat to forests and wildlife. As well as eating an estimated 21,000 tons of vegetation nightly, they steal the chicks and eggs of endangered birds. They destroy entire tree species, and compete with native birds, such as the iconic kiwi, for food and habitat.

New Zealand has a unique flora and fauna, having evolved in isolation for 80 million years. The last major land mass (apart from Antarctica) to be occupied by man, it had no native mammals except for a few bats. Anything with four legs and hair is regarded as a pest, including pigs, deer, rats, stoats and rabbits. And at the top of the blacklist, thanks to their awesome destructive powers, are brush-tailed possums.

The battle to eliminate them, and save native birds and plants, is being fought on many fronts. Hunters trap and shoot them; the government-funded Department of Conservation poisons whole populations by dropping toxins from the air. Possums are also targeted by the Animal Health Board, another official agency, because they spread bovine tuberculosis.

Now local entrepreneurs are doing their bit by creating a thriving trade in possum products. The pelts are made into handbags, muffs, stoles, vests, chair covers, and even mobile phone holders, as well as more conventional jackets, hats and scarves. The fur is used for trims and collars, and spun with merino wool to produce absurdly warm sweaters similar to mohair. Possum-skin gloves are sought after by sailors and golfers; Tiger Woods is said to swear by them. The meat is fed to dogs and exported to Asia, where it is considered an aphrodisiac.

It is a win-win situation - except, of course, for the possums themselves. The people who trap the creatures make money, as do those who transform them into bikinis or lampshades. The anti- fur lobby is perfectly happy, and there are fewer pests ravaging the New Zealand landscape. The higher the demand for possum products, the more incentive there is for hunters to go out and kill them.

"I call it eco-fur," says Teresa Angliss, whose company, Possum New Zealand, carries the slogan "Buy a possum and save a forest!" She says: "I wouldn't work with anything endangered, it would be against my conscience. But this is a national pest, so it's really appealing. I'm exploiting a commercial demand to help contain an environmental disaster."

With its hollow fibres, possum fur is the warmest known to man, according to Ms Angliss. "It's very similar to polar bear, which we're not allowed to wear," she explains. She dyes it 19 different colours, including lime and hot pink, and offers a choice of finishes, such as suede, nappa and antiqued.

Sometimes she hand-paints the skins: "It's really funky, upmarket fashion," she says. She gets through hundreds of thousands of possum pelts a year, which she buys from a tannery in the South Island. The possums are bigger and fatter down there, she says, because of the abundant vegetation.

It takes six possums to make a little vest, 15 to make a jacket, 35 to make a coat, depending on length and style. Possum bed throws are "huge" at the moment, says Ms Angliss. Offcuts are made into buttons and pom-poms, and used to stuff cushions.

All this has the blessing of groups such as the WWF New Zealand and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, which is the country's oldest and largest conservation organisation.

Kevin Hackwell, the advocacy manager of Forest and Bird, says: "Anyone who buys possum fur is doing New Zealand's bio-diversity a favour. We promote the killing of these animals, because killing possums is a major part of any conservation effort in New Zealand. It's absolutely crucial. It's fundamental. The introduction of possums has been absolutely disastrous. The possums have gone crazy here."

There are about 40 species of possum in Australia, where they generally evoke fond amusement, and at worst are regarded as a bit of a nuisance. Possums make a racket at night, fighting on the roofs of houses, and they occasionally fall down chimneys. But they are not a serious problem.

Mr Hackwell says: "In Australia they are native fauna, they've evolved in balance with the environment and have natural predators and competitors for food. All that is missing in New Zealand. Out here, it's a free lunch for them." No one here seems to object to the killing of possums; indeed, many people try to help out by squashing them on the roads. There is, however, debate about the methods. New Zealand uses 90 per cent of the world's 1080 (sodium monoflouroacetate), a fatal poison banned in many countries including most of the United States. The Department of Conservation (DOC) dumps 1080- coated carrots from helicopters into remote bushland areas infested with possums.

A DOC spokesman, Herb Christophers, defends the poison as a vital tool in the campaign to save indigenous wildlife from foreign invaders. "It's critical to our fight to eradicate pests," he says. "There may be moral issues over the use of toxins to manage pests, but you don't suddenly stop fighting a war because someone doesn't like guns." Kevin Hackwell also supports the use of 1080, unlike conservationists in the US and Europe, who deplore it because other, "non-target" animals are killed too. In New Zealand, people believe that the poison's benefits far outweigh its risks. In fact, its chief opponents are not animal-lovers, but deer-hunters who object to the fact that some of their prey eat the baits.

Mr Hackwell says: "It's an incredibly effective toxin, and used properly it does a fantastic job of killing possums and rats and stoats, and it allows us to do it over huge areas of rugged back country which are inaccessible by foot." As for the blossoming fur industry, Mr Christophers is not particularly impressed. He says that possum hunters do not kill enough prey to make much of a dent, and they only work in accessible areas, skimming off a percentage of animals. "They're not really helping to control them," he says. "They're taking the cherry off the top of the ice cream. We have to scoop out the whole tub.

"With aerial toxins, we can cover 5 to 10,000 hectares at a time. We can clean that area out in a couple of days. To cover the same area on foot, baiting and trapping, would take weeks. Pest control has got to be independent of the fur recovery industry. If you put a commercial value on a pest, you're always going to have problems managing it. What happens if the fur industry collapses?" Despite the magnitude of the problem, conservationists are optimistic. They boast that New Zealand is a world leader in pest eradication, exporting its technology around the world for conservation purposes. Possums and other pests have been eradicated from the country's offshore islands, and attempts are now being made to do the same on the mainland, by means of intensive trapping and poisoning in contained areas.

Mr Hackwell says that to eradicate possums completely is a "conservation dream". He says: "It's possible. We're constantly developing new technologies. But it's a huge task." Herb Christophers is scornful of the "Bambi syndrome", contending that misplaced sentiment obscures harsh realities. "Possums are nice animals, don't get me wrong," he says. "They're kind of cute. But they are a conservation pest. They scoff everything, and they're not wanted here. They're not indigenous to New Zealand. They've upset our natural ecology and they're trashing our birdlife." Mr Christophers says that he would "love to send them back across the Tasman" to Australia, which, by a circular irony, originally sent them here to create a fur industry.

In a small way, that is already happening. Teresa Angliss exports most of her products, and they mainly go to the US, where there appears to be an insatiable appetite for possum fur. But, she says, her jackets and scarves are increasingly being bought by Australians on holiday in New Zealand.

"The Australian girls buy them to take home, because they can't buy them there," she says. "So, in a funny way, you could say that we're exporting them back from whence they came."

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