Case study: Possum programme brings bush back

Rahotu farmer Len Pentelow recalls the “big headlines” generated by an outbreak of bovine TB on a nearby property in the early 1990s.

“All hell sort of broke loose,” he says of the time when officialdom and the dairy industry went on crisis footing in the face of a real and deadly threat to what is a multimillion-dollar export earner for Taranaki. “It’s a bit like the foot and mouth thing, isn’t it?”

Thankfully, the outbreak didn’t spread. Tb is a debilitating, chronic, often fatal disease disease in cattle, readily transmitted to others in the herd. Affected farmers face restrictions on animal movements, while the presence of the disease brings a potential threat of trade bans and consumer boycotts.

The Rahotu outbreak put the spotlight on possums, which are a major vector, or carrier, of the disease. If the unwelcome marsupials are infected, they can spread it rapidly on pasture, where they get an estimated 30% of their food intake, and in hay when they shelter in haysheds.

Achievement to be proud of

To this day, Taranaki retains official recognition as one of New Zealand’s bovine TB vector-free regions. Most observers, however, would agree this achievement is more the result of hard work than good luck.

And much of that hard work has been done by farmers like Len, and near neighbour Pat Morris.

Both men are long-term members of the Taranaki Regional Council’s Self-Help Possum Control Programme, which had its beginnings in the wake of that bovine TB scare in Rahotu.

Back in the early ‘90s, Len Pentelow’s farm was included in an initial possum blitz at Rahotu that resulted in the extermination of 8400 animals in the area. Then as now, under the self-help programme, the onus was put on individual farmers to keep possum numbers down with regular control operations following an initial knockdown carried out at no charge by the Taranaki Regional Council.

From Rahotu, the self-help programme has spread across Taranaki and by June this year covered 3,723 properties covering 225,700 hectares – representing 96% of the ring plain.

Len obtained the necessary licence to set poison on his own property and has been more than happy to do his bit all through the 15-plus years since that bovine TB outbreak.

“I think we could all see there was a good possibility of getting them under control to a large degree,” he says.

Benefits both ways

And both Len and Pat Morris have also discovered the benefits go far beyond preserving stock health and export receipts, as important as they are. As well as spreading bovine TB, possums are known for damaging bush and preying on birds’ eggs and even chicks.

Len has a couple of stands of native bush on his farm, protected under QEII covenant, and he’s observed “massive change” since the possum control work started.

“Kohekohe trees, rata, tawa trees – they’re all coming back. There’s been a big, big difference,” he says. “And tui are here now, we hear them all the time. It’s a significant change to hear these birds coming back.”

Pat Morris has a similar story to tell. Back in the old days, he says, you didn’t realise how many possums were around and the damage they were doing.

“Now you realise because of the regrowth of native vegetation along the streams. Bracken fern – I thought it had disappeared. Now it’s coming through in fenced-off areas where the cows can’t get at it.

“I see karo trees. Ponga are starting to pop up along the stream edges. You rarely saw them before. Possums would strip their fronds.

“There’s akeake. Karaka trees are coming back. Coprosma.”

Not like the old days

It’s a far cry from the old days when there were possums aplenty. As a young teen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Len set lines of gin traps for possums, checking them every morning before school.

He would retrieve ears and a strip of back skin as “tokens” to send to Wellington, rewarded with 2 shillings and sixpence for each under the Government’s bounty scheme of the time.

“I did well. Bought myself a good pushbike with the money,” he says. ““But the bounty scheme shows alarm bells were ringing about possums even then.”

Pat remembers going out possum shooting “nearly every night” and getting 20 to 30 each time, no problem. Couldn’t happen today, he says.

Besides the pressing environmental and economic reasons, there are other causes for some to be thankful. Len remembers some great pranks with cooked possums.

“There was a St John end-of-year do at the hall one year, and it was bring a plate. So we cooked a possum, pulled it apart on the plate, like you do with chicken, and dressed it up a bit.

“Tell you what, it was the first plate to go. People were eating it and trying to figure out what it was. Not chicken, said some, is it rabbit? Others said no, the bones were too big.

“When it was all gone we told them what they’d been eating. Well, they didn’t know whether to hit us or go outside and throw up.”

No cause for complacency

On a more serious note, both farmers know there’s no cause for complacency even though possum numbers are emphatically down.

“We’ve got to keep that maintenance up to make sure the things don’t come back again,” says Pat Morris, who uses contractors to undertake his maintenance under the self-help scheme. “They’re like weeds – you can control them but never completely eradicate them.”

Under the self-help scheme, the Taranaki Regional Council monitors possum numbers, using its own staff and contractors as well as data from farmers carrying out maintenance work on their own farms.

Council Director-Operations Rob Phillips says numbers can fluctuate and monitoring results often come as a surprise to farmers who may see little sign of the pests on their properties.

“When monitoring returns go up it’s often a case of detective work to find out where the animals have come from,” he says. “Possums move up and down streams and will travel great distances to get to favourites foods like pine buds.

“And juveniles, once they’re off their mothers’ backs, will push out to find themselves unoccupied territory to set up in. If you don’t keep on top of them, numbers can grow quickly.”

Through possums' eyes

The Council’s Pest Management Officers develop a sixth sense when it comes to their quarry, looking at the landscape through possums’ eyes and quickly identifying where they may be lurking. Even small copses of trees and boxthorn hedges can harbour surprising numbers.

The Council provides reminders and advice to farmers and for those like Len who prefer to lay their own poison, it runs education days to help them obtain the required licence.

For more information on the Self Help Possum Control Programme, contact the Taranaki Regional Council on 06 765 7127 and ask to talk to an Animal Pest Management Officer.