Fur-reaching solution to New Zealand's possum problem

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2002, 12:00am

Possums are running riot in New Zealand more than 150 years after they were introduced from Australia.

An estimated 70 million brush-tailed possums are munching their way through the country's forests, competing for food with native animals, endangering rare ground-dwelling birds by eating their eggs and spreading tuberculosis to cattle.

Now New Zealanders believe they have come up with a winning formula for reducing possum numbers and earning much-needed foreign exchange at the same time.

A growing number of companies are promoting the export of possum fur mixed with wool, a high-grade, high-value textile which is soft, warm and light.

Known variously as 'merino mink' or 'possum merino', it could be the next big thing to grace the catwalks.

'Possum fur is far superior to wool because the fibres are hollow, like those of a polar bear,' said Brent Connolly, whose New Zealand Possum Products Web site is at the forefront of efforts to market the quality knit.

In New Zealand, possums have no natural predators. A highly adaptable, nocturnal animal, they have now spread to about 90 per cent of the country and are regarded by conservationists as a serious threat to the environment.

A report by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment stated: 'The possum problem is very serious. Unique native species and ecosystems have already suffered considerable damage and if adequate resources are not provided in sensitive areas, the loss will continue and be permanent.'

While a wool jersey sells for about NZ$200 (HK$730), a sweater made from the merino-possum fur mix can fetch up to NZ$450.

Socks, scarves and pullovers are already being sold in small quantities to Japan, North America and Europe.

Mike Gould, chairman of Possum New Zealand, which markets possum products, said: 'The industry is very much in its infancy, but there is real potential for a niche, luxury product.'

Mr Gould believes the industry could be worth NZ$200 million a year if given enough encouragement.

'To roll back the numbers of possums in the wild we would have to kill about 10 million a year. At the moment we're taking about three million a year,' he said.

Possum suppliers are also hoping to expand the export of possum meat, which is now sold in the Korean and Taiwanese markets.

'We are working to open up the Chinese market. Possum meat is very nutritious and tastes a bit like strong chicken,' Mr Gould said.