Project Possum: it’s business time

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When Kiwi kids are planning their future careers, there’s an option they may not have considered: working in the possum industry.

New Zealand has tens of millions of possums running riot after being introduced here in the late 1800s, destroying native plants and gobbling up the resources needed by our vulnerable native species.

But this massive environmental issue has also created employment opportunities. New Zealand’s possum fur industry alone is worth over $100 million and with the right set of skills there are a multitude of career options, including possum control work with contractors such as DOC.

Hagan (far right) with the Vocational Primary Industries – VPI - students from Tauraroa Area School. Image credit: Project Possum.
Hagan (far right) with the Vocational Primary Industries (VPI) students from Tauraroa Area School. Image credit: Project Possum

Enter Project Possum, a secondary school-level course set up in 2011, which equips students with the skills to trap, kill and skin possums, recover their furs and pelts, and learn about possum biology and their impact on the environment.

The course offers NCEA Level 2 and 3 Unit Standards and is run by the Northland Regional Council via the Enviroschools Programme, with support from CanTrain NZ.

Through a mix of theory and practice, students learn about the different types of traps and lures, how to set and secure humane traps, how often to clear them, and how to skin a possum and pluck its fur by hand or with machines. The students also keep journals to record their experiences.

So far about 350 students, mainly from Northland schools, have taken part in Project Possum, including Hagan Skelton, a Year 12 student from Tauraroa Area School near Whangarei.

“I’ve always been keen on getting rid of possums on our farm and in our community,” explains Hagan, 17, who also runs a Facebook page with over 2,000 likes called Possum Trapping and Shooting NZ.

“Possuming is a very useful skill, whether you want to do it as a full-time job or eradicate possums around your home or farm,“ he says. He plans to continue putting his skills to use once he finishes school, in order to keep local possum numbers down and make some money.

Hagan preparing a possum skin for drying
Hagan preparing a possum skin for drying. Image credit: Project Possum

Enviroschools Coordinator Susan Karels says it’s been really rewarding to see everyone – from the NRC, DOC, local students and community members – coming together for a shared purpose.

“There’s a positive change in confidence, attitude, knowledge and skills in each of the students,” she says.

The students particularly enjoy the overnight camps, she says, waking to “sweet success” as they discover and dispatch their trapped possums.

And possum hunting is not a boys’ club. In fact, says Susan, the girls are often ahead when the results are tallied.

More recently an advanced course was also introduced to cover Controlled Substance Licence (CSL) training. Community members and students aged 17 or over are given the opportunity through the day-long course to lay possum-killing toxins like cyanide. Without the licence, it’s illegal to make, store or use such poisons.