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Possum - Both Villain And Value-Added Product

Oped piece
For immediate release
Monday, 17 January 2005

United Future environment spokesman Larry Baldock and United Future's affiliated party, Outdoor Recreation New Zealand, call into question a fixation with indiscriminate aerial drops of 1080 poison to cull possums. Unfortunately they also kill other native wildlife and will very possibly kill off a potentially huge meat and fur industry ...

Possum - both villain and value-added product

If is often said that out of crisis comes great opportunity and here in New Zealand we have just such an opportunity going begging in the form of the much-maligned possum.

Generally regarded as a plague and a pest, its potential is perhaps best summed up in the fact that its fur can attract $75 per kilogram in overseas markets. By comparison, wool tends to return $3 to $4 per kilogram.

Introduced in the 1800s to develop a fur trade, the feral bushtail possum population has grown to vast proportions, and as it has done so, it has come to endanger the country's biodiversity, through foraging and predation.

Add to this its role as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis (Tb), which can infect cattle and deer, placing at risk New Zealand's $1.3 billion meat trade, and clearly this creature has some very substantial black marks against its name.

In dealing with the risk of those important issues, we should not blind ourselves to the opportunities that present themselves. We should actively look to turn a pest into a resource.

The potential for this to be the case, however, can only be reached under the right conditions. Indeed, a number of visionary Kiwi entrepreneurs have turned possum meat, skin and fur into a viable and much sought after commodity in lucrative foreign markets.

Its meat has brought in valuable export dollars for over a decade now, with major markets in the Asian region where New Zealand possum meat is highly regarded.

Apart from being low in fat and high in protein, possums here get the best feed in the world from our native forests and our fruit trees, further adding to the quality of the meat.

Their meat is also highly sought after by dog owners, being less allergenic than other meats. New Zealand exporters often have trouble keeping up with demand for their product.

Unfortunately there are considerable obstacles to the growth of this potentially substantial industry, thanks in large part to the over-zealous reliance on and indiscriminate use of the 1080 toxin to eradicate Tb and the possum.

Along with regional councils, DOC spends approximately $89 million annually on pest control measures through either aerial distribution or ground-targeted distribution.

Indeed there seems to have been an increasing reliance in recent times on aerial distribution, even in areas where no evidence of Tb has been uncovered.

In such cases, alternative methods of pest control, such as hunting and trapping, should be explored. These methods can satisfy both the pest control objectives of DOC and the Tb control aims of the Animal Health Board (AHB) and regional councils, while preserving the meat, fur and skin of the possum.

It is baffling that DOC 's pest control aims in target areas is set to achieve a residual catch rate of 3% to 4%, when it is widely accepted that these areas can be re-populated by possums after a 1080 spraying programme.

The country would be better served if DOC managed the conservation estate at a continuous 10% catch rate rather than the unrealistic present level, which necessitates intensive use of the toxin.

Moreover, DOC's increasing use of aerial drops brings with it increased collateral damage to biodiversity, with secondary kills from birds eating maggots on the poisoned carcasses.

Conservation Minister Chris Carter has admitted that his department kills native birds in this manner. Given that ordinary citizens run foul of the law if they kill a native bird, shouldn't the same standard apply to those who do it in the name of public policy?

Moreover, the Minister's admission that the actions of DOC causes the death of native birds runs counter to the department core mission of protecting these birds.

This is an absurdity of enormous proportions. If the services of ground workers are engaged, DOC could also lay traps for some of the worst predators on our native birds, namely stoats, ferrets and weasels.

There have already been reports of export contracts being cancelled because of fears that heavy-handed applications of the 1080 toxin have tainted possum meat. Fear of residue contamination in both possum and feral venison, is very real in export markets.

Deliberate and indiscriminate use of 1080 only serves to exacerbate such fears, with perception equalling reality in terms of creating market fears.

United Future and Outdoor Recreation NZ accept that aerial application of 1080 is necessary in some remote places.

However, we firmly believe it is being used without due care and consideration and its indiscriminate use is hitting both our ecological biodiversity and damaging a potentially extremely lucrative new industry.

Additional research funding should be provided for alternative pest control methods, with a more measured response to the actual risk in any given area.

We don't need a 1080 fixation in this country. What we need is a pragmatic approach to properly manage the often-competing needs of DOC, the AHB, regional councils and possum-product exporters.

Commonsense dictates that the costs of removing the use of the 1080 toxin in the control programme completely at this stage are not worth the risk.

However, United Future and Outdoor Recreation NZ will be urging DOC and the AHB, when they sit down later this year after the ERMA review of 1080 to consider how to treat Tb and manage pest control going forward, to factor into their deliberations what could be done to mitigate the damage it does to the prospects of a rapidly growing and potentially valuable export industry.


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