Sitting on a ridge with the full moon shining on the gullies below and his daughter beside him is the highlight of Wilson Hobbs’ job.
The Matakana father-of-two is a possum hunter who spends nights doing pest control on urban, rural and lifestyle blocks, often for free, and with the intention of using the possums to make things he sells through word of mouth.
Hobbs, 41, has been shooting possums for years – but when his daughter Katherine starting joining his night missions aged 3, it brought a whole new meaning to the profession.
“It was never about hunting. It was about parking up in the middle of the paddock and pouring a cup of hot Milo with your little girl,” he says.
“You park up on the very top of a ridge on a full moonlit night and you turn all your lights off and you’ve got gullies that are lit up. Sometimes we don’t even say a word but we’re having a conversation, if you know what I mean.”
Now 7, Katherine has developed an “eye” for the job – spotting possums in the trees and keeping track of how many her father has shot, pushing him to keep going if he hasn’t got enough.
“We’re at the point now where we’d look in the bin and we’re up to about 30 and then she goes, ‘come on Dad, let’s go get another 15.'”
Possums are a widespread and significant predator in New Zealand. Their diet, which includes plants, trees, insects, eggs and chicks, can have devastating impacts on the environment. Ongoing efforts by The Department of Conservation, iwi, community members and other groups and agencies strive to reduce their numbers.
In Matakana, when residents call Hobbs with a problem he can fit into his schedule, he heads to their property with his quad bike and dog Major and gets to work.
First, he lays down a non-toxic edible lure that smells of peanut butter. Then, when it’s done its work, he returns at night with a thermal imaging device and culls them.
Hobbs has 121 clients. He works for about two-thirds of them for free and charges those who have a significant number of possums and require a comprehensive management plan.
“A lot of these blocks I can go in and knock the population right down and they won’t see me again for 18-20 months.
“I never took payment for it and it was just something I would do to help the locals out. But I’ve had to try and charge for that now, it’s a bit hard feeding the family out of love.”
Hobbs shoots up to 30 possums per night and gives his clients a report with GPS co-ordinates showing where he caught them.
He recalls going to one property and shooting 40 possums in under an hour.
“They were going to town on her orchard. Since then I’ve been maintaining that for her, but the numbers have rapidly dropped off.”
He used to sell possum meat to a pet food company, but things changed when Covid struck.
“We certainly weren’t the panic buyers but we did panic in terms of our pets, our animals.”
Hobbs went out shooting and came back with three months’ worth of possum meat that he put through a burley mincer and froze. That inspired him to think about what he wanted to do next in life.
“My real passion is conservation and the environment and being proactive about it.”
He started Matakana Possum Co, selling items such as blankets and pillows made from the skins and furs of the possums he catches. He hopes to start selling pet food made from the meat of possums from poison-free properties in the coming months.
Hobbs is focused on teaching his daughter the importance of treating the animals he kills with respect while ensuring she understands why they do what they do. The pair say a karakia for every animal they shoot.
“The reason why I get her to do that is so she understands why we do it. There’s a circle, there’s a balance. She’s been doing that since she was 3-and-a-half. Yes, they are a pest but they are still an animal.”
The Department of Conservation’s Peter Morton says native trees like the rātā are particularly palatable to possums and they often return to the same tree again and again, eating the new shoots, flowers and leaves. That could kill centuries-old trees.
“Over time, you’ll see a forest just degraded, the canopy condition reduced, the amount of regeneration reduced.”
Possum control is part of the Predator 2050 programme which aims to protect our most at-risk native species, such as kōkako, kiwi, kākā, kea and whio.
Morton, the programme’s landscape manager, says individual possum hunters can help reduce numbers, but possums had to be suppressed to low levels over large areas on an ongoing basis for forests and wildlife to recover and flourish.
Hobbs has been possum shooting by himself since he was 16 but it has taken several job changes to find his place in the forest.
Growing up on a sheep and beef farm in South Taranaki, Hobbs spent much of his childhood outdoors, shearing sheep, playing rugby and “getting lost” at the back of the farm.
His grandfather and father were significant figures in his life, and at 17 he followed their footsteps into the military. In 1999, aged 19, he served in East Timor.
Years later, back in New Zealand, Hobbs developed a deep love for the ocean and spent a decade working as a dive instructor where he taught people, some who couldn’t even swim, how to dive.
“I love my spearfishing and my diving. It’s my time away, it’s my place where I can just go, be by myself. It’s a meditation. You can just go quiet and forget about everything.”
'The shine on their coat is amazing'
When Hobbs needs possum skins to make blankets, he heads south.
In Fiordland, the day starts at 5.30am. Although early, he’s in no rush. Time moves slow for the father-of-two. Breakfast, a cup of tea, then he heads out the door around 7.30am and into the bush.
Hobbs shoots on farms and stations in Fiordland, where the possums are larger and with a greater variety of coat colours than those in Matakana.
“The shine on their coat is amazing. There are six-plus different shades of colouring.
“Going down there, it’s amazing. It really is just untouched territory.”
For a king-size blanket, Hobbs needs 45-60 possum skins. But they have to be of similar colours, meaning he may have to kill a few hundred possums to get enough that match.
“If you get a red-brown possum with a total black possum, it’s not going to look right. You’ve got to find 60 red-browns and they all have to be the right size.”
Hobbs is a humble man, grateful for the moments he gets to spend with his daughter outside.
“Without being in this environment and shooting at night time, I wouldn’t have the experiences that I have with my kids that I get now. Thinking about it now, it’s probably half the reason why I do it. [My daughter] does kick up a stink if she can’t come out. She’d rather take that than going to her friends’ house and staying the night. She loves it,” he says.
“You’ve got to do the best that you can with kids these days and it’s about experiences and, given my limited resources, this is the best experience I can try to give my kids.”
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