A possum fur coat with hat and gloves to match? Or a bikini of silky possum skin? In New Zealand the anti-fur protesters have given these garments the thumbs up. In fact, they support any use for these cute marsupial immigrants because they, along with all New Zealanders, consider that the only good possum is a dead one. Their only natural enemy is the car, whose numbers don't match the 90 million possums destroying the forests. Possums chomp their way through the new growth and leaves of native trees, competing for food with native birds and eating their young and eggs as they go. It is estimated they chomp through seven million tonnes of vegetation a year. It’s either the possums or the forests.
(Note: The possum found in New Zealand and Australia is a herbivore with a bushy tail, giving it the name brush-tailed possum. This animal should not be confused with the opossum, a carnivore found in North America.)
Hunters and poison have failed to control these pests, which were introduced from Australia in 1837. Recently, industrial entrepreneurs have stepped in to provide a financial incentive for the animals’ slaughter. The pelts are made into a range of fashion garments for cooler climates, and possum skin gloves are sought after by yachties and golfers. When spun in a mixture of 60 percent sheep’s wool and 40 percent possum, the fibre has the softness of mohair and the resulting sweaters, scarves and socks are luxury items.
Untouched World, the lifestyle fashion label of company Snowy Peak, has developed a possum/merino wool mix it calls Merinomink. Merinomink fibres produce a high warmth to weight ratio, and make lightweight, durable and comfortable garments.
New Zealanders have tried other crafty means to incorporate the pesky possum into fashionable items. Possum Pam from Nelson ensures no little scraps of possum fur are wasted - she makes them into Nipple Warmers (well, Nelson winters can be frosty…). Possum Pam describes herself as ‘guardian of New Zealand conservation’ and notes that the pest is destroying New Zealand's flora and fauna. She wants people ‘to use this product to help stem the tide of destruction - Save New Zealand's Forests Now.’ There would have to be a lot of cold nipples out there to stem that tide. Still, you have to admire the kiwi ingenuity.
The latest attempt to transform this pest into an asset involves the New Zealand native flax that the indigenous Maori wove into garments and baskets, and which earlier in the 20th century, provided a thriving industry for the small coastal North Island town of Foxton. The plant flourished on the surrounding damp plains and was processed into fibre for making ropes and even blankets. But as agriculture increased, the wetlands were drained and pasture replaced the habitat of the flax plant. Now two men, New Zealand industrial scientist George Sanford and possum products marketer Greg Howard have come up with a remarkable idea that could kill two environmental problems with one stone - restoring the land and killing a noxious pest. Sanford has discovered that flax fibre combined with possum fur makes a textile similar in texture and weight to a worsted.
‘People are turning back to the old fabrics and this one is wonderful. It’s not unlike hemp and it’s hard-wearing, water-resistant and has a high tensile strength,’ Sanford says.
He and Howard hope to interest a Belgian linen factory in setting up a joint venture in New Zealand. Then they will look at restoring areas of wetland for flax planting, and give jobs to the unemployed as possum trappers. They plan, hopefully by 2003, to have a flax-processing factory set up that will operate using geothermal gas, because part of the process uses heat.
As for the possums - any number of those unwanted 90 million will do. It takes about 18 of them to provide a mere kilo of fur. Each corpse has to be skinned and the back of the skin covered with a mixture of lime sodium sulphite, which causes the fur to drop off. Present prices are about $NZ55 a kilogram. And there won’t be any waste, because possum meat is considered an aphrodisiac in Asia. One kilogram already fetches about $NZ29 for export. Kiwis, in general, won't touch the stuff although the occasional possum pie has been heard of.
They have a better idea for the meat. An innovative Tauranga farmer, Bryan Bassett-Smith, launched PossYum in 2001, a tasty (apparently) dog food made from possum meat. Bassett-Smith says possum meat ‘smells and tastes very much like a good corned beef. It's got a nice odour to it and dogs just go quite bananas over it.’
He has plans to export his possum pet food to Singapore and South Korea.
New Zealanders don’t like possums, but with a little Kiwi ingenuity they could become an asset. And if you wanted to feel like you were helping stamp out the possum problem - Possum Pam has another solution. Buy her possum fur shoe insoles.
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