Nestled by the shores of Lake Wakatipu, in the shadow of magnificent snow-capped peaks, sits the small hamlet of Glenorchy. Situated about a 45 minute drive from nearby Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island, Glenorchy is the gateway to the aptly named Paradise – made famous as the backdrop for some of the most spectacular footage from the Lord of The Rings Trilogy of films – and the stepping off point for the famous walking trail to Milford Sound, The Routeburn Track.
Here in Glenorchy you’ll also find a small, unassuming terracotta coloured shed, inside which is the home of Glenorchy Fur Products. Owner Thor Davis, a wiry individual who exudes the natural wary charm of an outdoorsman, used to just trap the fur until the market for his possum skins started to dry up in the late 1990’s. To overcome a lack of buyers for his skins, Thor decided to start manufacturing his skins himself and in the ensuing years has grown from making a few boot liners in his living room to developing a growing international export business for his range of products, a collection that covers everything from hats to bedspreads.
While many people in Australia would think of possums as being those things that run along the back fence and occasionally take up unwanted residence in the roof, in New Zealand they are considered a pest. As New Zealand has only two native land mammals, the long and short tailed bat, settlers to the islands were keen to feel more at home through the introduction of familiar species. Under the watchful eye of an almost Orwellian sounding ‘Acclimatisation Society’, Possums were introduced to the landscape in 1837, around the same time as other mammals such as deer and rabbits, with devastating long-term effects to the natural environment.
As manufacturing comes under increasing pressure in New Zealand, Thor is down to having only one Tannery available to him where he had four only a matter of years ago, the premium nature of his product continues to provide his business with reasons to be positive. Fourth in warmth behind only Polar Bear, Wolverine and Beaver, and with it being a fine, fixed (so it doesn’t break or shed like, say, rabbit) and low allergenic fur, Possum fur is being increasingly sought after. While there is a growing industry in ‘plucking’ the fur for blending with other fibres, in particular merino wool, Thor prefers to trap and source only premium, whole skins for tanning. This leaves him a window of only about 10 weeks when the fur is at it’s best. It just so happens that those 10 weeks are also in the dead of winter when the fur is at its full winter length.
During this period, Thor heads to the surrounding mountains, taking lodging in small huts for 7 to 8 day stretches (or until he has enough pelts to bring back down the mountain). During the day he will set trap lines of cyanide pellets that run for about 8 kilometres, with a bait set every 20 or so meters. It makes for long, tough days in the snow. “Every step out is a step you’ve got to take back’ says Davis. “It’s hard work. You’ve gotta do big days. Guys who do it solely for money don’t last. You’ve gotta enjoy being out in the bush.” Each pelt is then carried out by Thor and frozen, ready for the tannery. Given that he’s hopefully of tapping 1400 – 1500 possums in a season, that’s a lot of weight to come back down the mountain. And if the physical labour isn’t hard enough, the winter also brings other dangers to the mountains.
“There’s lot’s of hunters about.” Says Thor with a smile. “That’s another of the challenges. Making sure they don’t mistake me for a deer!”