20 January 2023

Possum tragic: It's a wild time in Canberra's bushy burbs so best learn to coexist

| Ian Bushnell
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Make yourself at home: A brushtail possum mum on the deck at Rivett. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

They don’t call it the Bush Capital for nothing.

We love Canberra’s trees and leafy suburbs but by God it’s a jungle out there.

And in the past few years, conditions have been perfect for all kinds of critters to prosper.

Especially, those high-wire artists and roof droppers with the most terrifying of screeches that make homes in ceiling cavities and are almost impossible to remove.

Not sure when the possums arrived in force in our neck of the woods at Rivett. Maybe they were there all the time but their presence was not so dramatic and certainly not in today’s numbers.

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I started to see the odd one on moonlit nights stepping silently across the phone line strung between houses, a kind of possum highway through the suburbs.

But the first time one landed on the roof, leaping off the big Chinese elm that spreads over the roof, it came as a shock.

The whole house vibrated with the thump, followed by the sprint across the tiles.

It’s been like that for years, a nightly ritual almost like clockwork, only now there’s more than one and their game has gotten ever more raucous.

That’s sure to be a brushtail possum, says Stuart Ireland from Possum Busters removal service.

“They are very regular, and have a little circuit round their territory and go and check everything, and they will do it on the clock,” he says.

For such little, furry creatures, possums emit some of the strangest noises, rousing you from your sleep with hisses and bloodcurdling screams, sometimes directly beneath your window.

Obviously there is a bit more than playing going on out there.

Stuart says they’re likely defending their territory from rivals to maintain their food source.

“It’s a bit of a dog-eat-dog world,” he says. “If you don’t defend your little patch you lose your food source and starve.”

possum box

A possum box can keep them out of the roof. Photo: Possumbusters.

And the bushier the burbs are the more possums they can support.

“There are not as many possums in the wild as there are in our suburban areas,” Stuart says.

They have gotten ever bolder, clambering over the deck and leaving a trail of scats to add to the chores.

As if the nightly ruckus isn’t bad enough, they have thwarted our small attempts at gardening, demoralisingly chewing parsley, their favourite says Stuart, and spinach plants and even potted flowers down to the base of the stem.

I know, netting and fencing could keep them at bay, and apparently they don’t like certain smells like menthol or mothballs. Motion-sensor lights is another suggestion.

But that seems like a lot of effort for the lazy gardener.

Fortunately, they haven’t got inside the roof cavity, leaving that to the rats, but that’s another story.

The other night the noise was so disturbingly close I had to look outside the front door, and there it was perched on a deck post.

By the look of it, it was a she and carrying a joey in her pouch.

Obviously, this possum clan loves the neighbourhood as much as we do.

And they aren’t going anywhere. Being territorial, even if we called in the professionals to remove them – it’s not a DIY job – being protected animals, they have to be released in their territory anyway.

Stuart says possums aren’t aggressive at all but like any wild animal they will startle if someone untrained tries to grab them, and they have extremely sharp claws and are very strong and quick.

“So a couple of swipes and you’ll be going to hospital,” Stuart says.

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The preferred method for getting them out of the roof cavity is the one-way release door inserted in the roof, which allows them out but prevents them returning.

Sometimes though they will fall down chimneys or into the wall cavity, and that requires a hole in the plaster.

But making sure there are no entry points in the first place is essential.

The other thing to do is install a possum box in your tree, where they will be happy to make their home.

Stuart says possums do get a bad rap but they’re “basically a brown koala”.

“They’re actually a pretty cool animal, the way they move and climb,” he says. “They can be super smart. People train them to eat out of their hand.”

So it’s a case of learning to live with them and appreciating the fact that Canberra’s leafy suburbs can support native wildlife.

But there is relief on the way, because it’s us who’s moving on.

Not too far away, but it won’t be anywhere as bushy or as hospitable to wildlife as Rivett.

And disquietening as they can be, we will probably miss their nightly travels, along with the bower birds, parrots, koels, kookaburras, magpies and currawongs that provide a daily soundtrack.

But God help the newcomers on their first night in the Rivett jungle.

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William Newby10:50 pm 23 Jan 23

They do make the most hideous noises in the middle of the night. When they do I just give the gardens a good top up of blood and bone, the smell sends them packing for at least another 4 months.

1. Buy possum trap.
2. Bait possum trap with apple and peanut butter.
3. Catch possum in trap.
4. Relocate possum to Rivett.

They also like to eat the flowers of roses, geraniums and nasturtiums, all things we can eat too. It’s disheartening watching rose buds swell and just about to flower before they’re devoured.

In NZ I figure they’re not protected, as their fur is used with merino wool to make the softest warmest gloves, jumpers etc that you’ve ever had. You can buy some of those products here, great in a Canberra winter although rather expensive,

Down in Tassy your able to buy socks made from a mixture of possum fur, and merino wool.

A few good years ago I purchased some. The mixture is very soft, wears very well, and is also a little expensive.

Victor Bilow1:30 pm 25 Jan 23

The NZ possums are imports from Australia and they hate them.

On the outside of our bedroom there is a tin cover over the air-condition pipes leading up to the inside air con.

A few years ago around 3am there would be a hell of a racket on the tin, sounding like tap dancing, with a brawl mixed in as well.

Did check it out and so met me new possum neighbours.

Mentioned it one day to an old timer up the road, and he told me if you wish not to be woken up, stick a few Camphor Moth & Silverfish Repellent containers on the tin, and they will bugger off and tap dance somewhere else.
They do not enjoy the camphor odour.

So I did just that, and apart from summernat type noise, things are once again quiet.

We cull kangaroo populations when they get out of control, why not possums? They have no known enemies and the only reason there are so many is that the Greens have increased protections on trees and encouraged everyone to grow food in their backyards. In the wild, there would not be rows of parsley, lettuce and carrots for these things to eat.

A recent study on Gang Gang nests showed that one of the biggest reasons for their decline is they are being outcompeted by brush tail possums. 60% of Gang gang nesting holes were overrun by a possum within 3 weeks. I’ll be catching mine and relocating them to the lodge and Greens electorates where they are wanted!

Exactly. The fact that there are more here in the suburbs than in the wild tells us it is unnatural for there to be so many of them. They are driving other species to extinction. We need to start seriously discussing culling them.

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