The New Zealand record for skinning a possum stands at 9.5 seconds. It was set in the 1980s by Ivan Gutsell, a Southlander who has trapped possums for over 40 years. Ivan still does the odd bit of trapping, but these days he focuses mainly on culling possums for the regional council, and doesn’t bother taking the skins. He reminisces about the early ’80s, when the price paid for a first-grade skin topped $27. With his speed and local knowledge, he could achieve tallies of over 100 first-grade pelts a day. Today the price for a first-grade skin wavers between $12 and $14. Market demand is still nowhere near the level it was 25 years ago, when export revenue peaked at $23 million in 1980. But for the first time since the anti-fur protests and the sharemarket crash of the late 1980s, when New Zealand’s possum-skin exports dwindled to a mere $101,000, possum fur is again a fashion item.
Trappers are returning to the fur as a source of revenue, and boutiques all over the country are cutting out pelts and stitching up garments to supply a steadily growing trade. While exports of possum skins for 2002 totalled only $500,000, possum fur, spun into fibre, fed a multimillion-dollar market. It seems that possum is becoming the fur de rigueur, the designer fibre—teased, braided, woven, dyed and spun.
In the 2002 L’Oreal New Zealand fashion week 6 of the 50 featured designers used possum fur in their creations, either as trims and borders or, in one case, for a full-length coat. For these designers, and many other garment makers and fur sewers around the country, using possum fur is an ecofriendly practice. Possums are pests, so, as Ivan Gutsell says, “Every dead possum is a good possum.”
Across the Tasman, however, things aren’t so clear-cut. In its homeland of Australia the brushtail possum is a protected species, and when Australian designer Lisa Ho recently paraded New Zealand possum-fur jackets and capes on a Sydney catwalk she caused a furore amongst animal-rights activists. However, the protests were soon muffled by the sound of credit-card transactions as the jackets sold for over $A2000 each.
Despite the animal’s pest status in New Zealand, some animal rights activists disapprove of the use of possum fur. Protesters have spraypainted display windows and damaged locks at a number of Auckland fashion stores stocking possum-fur garments. The Auckland Animal Action Group believes that if possum fur finds a foothold in the fashion market, it will increase demand for other, often factory-farmed, fur. “In the worst case scenario, if it becomes more cost efficient, farmers could start factory-farming possums,” states the group.
Yet possum-fur merchandise is meeting little consumer opposition in New Zealand’s retail market. Even fur-based cottage industries, aimed for the most part at the overseas-visitor market, have experienced mounting product interest. They benefit not only from the new fashionability of fur, but also from the perception that the use of possum fur is environmentally responsible.
Glenorchy designer Dan Kelly pushes the eco line with his range of clothing marketed under the Pest Control label. “Each fur-trimmed garment is manufactured using the fur from one possum,” he says. “Customers who buy this label make a strong link to the concept of pest control: one garment means one less possum.”Possum-fur company Seriously Twisted, in Port Chalmers, also promotes its products on the basis of environmental concern.
Seriously Twisted began as a back‑room experiment in 2000, when Ross Munro, a fisherman for many years, started twisting strands of possum fur and joining them end to end to make one long filament. He found that he could weave this twine, much like a fishing net, to make garments. The result has been a range of shawls, scarves and head-wear which have attracted interest from as far afield as Switzerland. Such garments are a far cry from the early years of the possum-fur industry, which can still be glimpsed in Dunedin’s North East Valley, under the creaking gables of Fur Dressers and Dyers NZ Ltd.
“Leather is tanned, fur is dressed,” Evan Tosh tells me as he leads the way through the factory. Evan is the last working member of a once-booming family business which spanned three generations. He apologises for the dank atmosphere: “Bit of leaky building syndrome here!”
The place seems more like a working museum than a production facility. Wooden barrows stacked high with possum skins lie about the place, their oak timbers stained dark from the oily marsupial pelts. Evan scoffs at the suggestion that the possum-pelt trade is on the rebound. He reckons the current surge will be short-lived. He has, however, bought a load of export-grade skins himself in the hope that they’ll be worth something in the not-so-distant future.
While waiting to see how far the price rises, Evan has turned to the academic world and is writing a master’s thesis on New Zealand’s fur industry over the past century. His opinion is that while fashion may keep the fur trade afloat, the real growth will come from fibre. “It’s all about ‘second skin’ now,” he says. “It’s all woven, worn close to our bodies, comfortable, like another skin.”
Snowy peak, in Christchurch, knows all about that concept. In its factory the latest Italian knitting machines, looking like props from Dr Who, can be programmed to produce a new design at the touch of a computer keyboard. Here Evan Tosh’s prediction is being borne out. For, as much as the possum-pelt trade might be variable, the trade for fibre—specifically possum-wool yarn—is growing exponentially.
Again, it is a trade with humble—and recent—beginnings. In 1991, Fazil Khan, a researcher with Wools of New Zealand, was approached by Phyllis Huitema, from the Taumarunui Development Board, with an idea for creating jobs in the area. Huitema presented Khan with a handful of possum fur, wondering if he could devise some way of creating a yarn. Two weeks later he had succeeded, creating a blend of 80 per cent wool, 20 per cent possum fur. He sent the spun yarn to Peri Drysdale, CEO of Snowy Peak, a manufacturer of woollen garments, and she devised a couple of creations that went on to win first prize for Huitema in the Manawatu Royal Show.
Khan continued with his trials, finding he could use as little as 60 per cent merino wool with the possum fur. Like the fibres of some other fur-bearing animals, such as polar bears and reindeer, possum fibres have a hollow shaft and therefore retains their warmth when wet or frozen. Spun in combination with merino wool, they yield a soft, lightweight, warm and resilient yarn. For all its favourable qualities, however, possum fur is still an extremely difficult fibre to work with. “It’s short and variable in length and diameter,” says Khan. “Producing a consistent yarn is a real challenge.”
The total value of the possum-fibre industry is hard to assess, as manufacturers are secretive about their earnings, but Wool Yarns New Zealand estimates it to be worth as much as $120 million a year and rising—up from around $4 million in 1995.
Steve Boot, another ex-trapper from the possum-fur heyday of the 1970s and ’80s and now responsible for procuring fur for Snowy Peak, draws attention to the rapid growth of the fibre industry. “Just take a look at the tonnage. From one tonne of fur in 1997, we now take over 40 tonnes per year—that’s around one-and-a-half million possums.”
Steve rejects any suggestion that the fibre industry will be as erratic as the market for skins. “A woman who would never consider wearing a fur coat might not think twice about wearing a garment made from possum-merino blend.”
Steve and his wife, Sue, run their company, Basically Bush, from the backblocks near Opotiki, in the Bay of Plenty. One half of the company manages the fur-procurement business, contracting out to several agents who in turn employ hundreds of trappers nationwide. The other half operates a training programme, teaching people how to trap possums.
The programme was started in 1994, partly in response to rising levels of unemployment in the area. With financial assistance from the government’s Taskforce Green initiative, the Boots set up a training camp in their own backyard. Two years later, when the funding ended, they offered their skills to the Tairawhiti Polytechnic, in Gisborne. Sue Boot continues to administer the programme, a 16 week pest-control course which tours the country, training students from Northland to Stewart Island. Students learn the most efficient methods of trapping possums and harvesting the skins and fibre.
The easiest way to obtain the fibre, Steve tells me, is to pluck a still-warm animal by hand. This is quicker than skinning but necessitates the use of traps rather than poisons, so that the animal is taken alive. In the interests of humane practice, some types of leg-hold trap are being phased out, but many people still find the very idea of trapping distasteful. The alternative is poisoning. Cyanide-based poisons, which can drop a possum within a few seconds, are favoured by most hunters.
The problem of dealing with a cold carcass—difficult, if not impossible, to pluck by hand—has been overcome by the advent of portable plucking machines. Weighing just under 10 kg, these petrol-powered machines can be carried through the bush, and remove the fur from a possum in 40 seconds. Two rubber blades attached to a spinning shaft grab the fur, pulling it cleanly out from the carcass. The blades’ spinning action creates a suction that draws the fur into a catch net capable of holding the fibre of 30 possums.
According to Steve, though, plucking by hand does a better job, ensuring the removal of the finest of the fibres, those closest to the skin (similar to the dense fur beneath the guard hairs of a dog). Steve speaks almost lovingly of this “under-down,” enthusing about its quality. Fur quality varies according to location. Steve says the best fur of all comes from the headwaters of the Whanganui River. “The animals there are among the smallest in the country, but they have reliably the finest fur.”Even possum meat is now considered a resource. Exotic Game Meats, in Whangarei, processes possum meat for human consumption, the primary market being Asia.
Health regulations are stringent, says plant manager Adele Beazley, making the possum an expensive product to bring to market. But production cost is not the only limit to growth of the industry, Beazley says. Exotic Game Meats is required to source all its possums from Northland, as the region is free of bovine tuberculosis (see sidebar). Current demand far exceeds the company’s ability to procure and process sufficient animals, says Beazley. In Northland, despite the area’s high unemployment, there simply aren’t enough trappers.
To what extent could a vibrant fur industry (and to a lesser extent a meat-processing industry) solve the country’s possum plague?It seems an obvious enough question, but ask anyone from the Deparment of Conservation or the Animal Health Board and the response is likely to be an irritated sigh. Officials in these organisations do not believe that the possum trade can ever make more than a dent in the population.
In fact, no one has an accurate figure for the size of the possum population. Nick Hancox, communications manager of the Animal Health Board (AHB), says the commonly quoted figure of 70 million “was always a back-of-the-envelope figure.”“In any case, the number of possums is not relevant,” he adds. “The amount of damage they do is.”
Steve Boot believes the possum industry could significantly help with damage control. At the moment, he points out, some four million possums a year are used commercially, a figure which is predicted to rise to 7.5 million by 2005.“Surely the fur industry could help meet the possum-control objectives of the AHB while at the same time creating employment opportunities,” he argues.
Steve envisages the two operations working together, a team of fur pluckers following behind contract cullers as they penetrate an area in a first wave of possum control, when the kill rate is at its highest and the time and energy required to process the animals are rewarded with the maximum commercial return.
But Nick Hancox sounds a note of caution. In the mid-1980s, he points out, AHB possum cullers were sometimes denied access to blocks of land, such was the potential value of pelts to property owners. There can also be a problem, he says, with fur trappers going into an area and taking the “easy catch,” leaving a residue of animals which are poison-or trap-shy.
Steve Boot thinks these issues could be resolved if the relevant agencies “all sat down around the table to devise a system of satisfying everyone’s needs.”“Let’s exploit the little critters to the max,” he says. “They can fund their own demise.”
But where would that leave the industry, riding its new wave of fashion-fuelled demand? Peri Drysdale is relaxed about whether or not the company can rely on a continuous supply of possum fur.“In this business you can’t afford to depend on anything,” she says. “We’ll use the fibre for as long as it’s available.”And after that? “If we can solve the ecological problem—wipe out possums—then that would be mission accomplished.”