Trapping for Possum Control and Adding Value

May 2012

Bluey Hebberd traps possums and sells the fur and skins for pest control and extra income

Possums cause considerable damage to forests. Trapping them is a highly effective method of control and trappers can earn a good income from fur and skins. Trapping is said to be more effective than poisoning, does not have the environmental disadvantages; and has the products for the basis for a growing industry.

During the run up to the election, Bluey Hebberd trapped more possums than John Banks got votes. He and his wife Helen have been doing this for a very long time – Bluey is 70 – and can be considered expert in laying and setting traps and dealing with the catch. There is a knack to knowing exactly where and how to place traps to ensnare possums without killing them or causing them undue pain.

“I use the approved ‘No.1’ traps – gin traps are illegal – and we just drive a couple of nails on the side of a post or tree trunk, up the tree a bit to avoid catching wekas. You slide your trap onto the nails and hang the chain down and attach it, and you put the lure above the trap so that when the possum climbs up to get it, he puts his foot in the trap. Then he jumps away and the trap slides off the nails and onto the ground, which means that the possum doesn’t damage himself,” says Bluey.

“The possum is alive when we get to it, so I kill it and I can tell at that point whether the skin is any good. If it is, I leave the fur on, hang the carcass up overnight and skin it in the morning because if you try to skin them when they are hot, the fur just falls out. If the skin is no good I wait about a minute and a half and then pluck the fur off.”

Skins are put in the freezer and sold “green” to a dealer who also takes the fur. These days fur is valuable – about $145 per kg, and Bluey says it takes about 14 possums to yield a kilo of fur.

Blocks are allocated to trappers by DOC or private owners. Bluey’s main block is in a private forest, which he has had for about five years. He spends about three months of the year on that block moving around on a motorbike and staying in his caravan. The rest of the year he is on other blocks, and there is no shortage of people contacting him for his services because he is good at what he does.

“Where I’ve been hunting possums with my nephew we used to get 80 possums in 120 traps. These days we’re lucky if we get 16 or 17. We’ve virtually wiped them out in places. I’ve got blocks now that it is hardly worth going back to because you hardly get any,” he says.

In Bluey’s experience 1080 poison is slow and not as effective as trapping.

“With cyanide you have to feed the line to attract possums for a couple of nights before you put the baits down, and then you have to skin the dead possums and slipe them [put preservative on them]. So that’s a week’s work, and in that time traps would have caught many more. Traps can catch something every night and keep catching,” he says.

“If you had a gully with lots of possums, instead of putting 1080 over it just give it to some young fellow who wants the block for trapping. He can make a really top living out of possum fur and skins.”

Bluey has taught many a youngster to hunt and trap – he was a hunter for 21 years – and he sees trapping as a good business. People on the dole could be given a few traps and allocated a block and with a bit of training could establish themselves – that would be a win-win because it would save the government money, he says.

Possum trapping is certainly a win-win for forest owners and managers according to Phillip Woodward, operations coordinator for Merrill and Ring New Zealand Limited, which manages the 3700 ha Marlborough regional pine forests for the Marlborough Regional Council and the Kaikoura District Council.

“Possums climb trees and chew the tops out, and that affects the form and quality of the trees from seedlings right through to harvest. If unchecked it can be devastating,” says Philip.

“We have had trappers for the past 10 years, and there has certainly been a reduction in possum numbers as a result. Very, very rare rarely do we see possums on our roads or tracks now, and you hardly see any possum damage at all – just occasionally in areas that have been closed to trapping because of harvesting, the numbers build up and we see some damage to newly planted seedlings. I just let the possum trappers know and they come in and do their job.”

TB is not an issue in the area and so trapping is just to avoid tree damage, and the forest managers allocate areas to trappers who apply.

Says Phillip “It is a win-win – we don’t pay for pest control and the trappers make a living out of selling the fur and skin. It is one operation that is not an expense for us other than making sure that they abide by forestry operation rules. We appreciate the free animal control, and the guys will shoot the odd rabbit or hare or goat if we ask them to. They are experts in animal control and we utilise their skills when we need to.”