Friendly Neighbourhood Possums

Possums are the backyard bandits that we love to hate. These stealthy marsupials are notorious for snacking on our garden plants, nesting in our rooves, and causing a ruckus while we’re trying to sleep. However, our furry neighbours are not to be blamed - they are simply trying to survive in the environment that they too call home. It seems that residents of suburbia have forgotten that possums are native animals to be appreciated and treasured, and that they’re not just another invasive pest that needs to be eradicated.

There are two species of possum that are common in the city of Melbourne. These are the Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecular) and the Common Ringtail Possum (Psuedocheirus peregrinus). Brushtail possums are solidly built, and are around the size of a domestic cat. As their name suggests, the most identifiable characteristic of this species is their bushy tail, but also their loud, guttural calls. They can inhabit a range of environments, such as suburban parks and gardens, but prefer dry eucalypt forests and woodlands. Brushtail Possums have a varied diet, feeding mostly on leaves, fruits and flowers, and also occasionally on insects and meat. In contrast, Ringtail Possums have a slighter build, and are smaller than Brushtrails. They have a slender, white-tipped tail that is prehensile (meaning that it functions as a fifth limb), as it is used to grasp onto branches or carry nesting material. Ringtail Possums inhabit forested environments, as well as coastal scrub and suburban gardens. These shy marsupials feed primarily on leaves, but also on flowers and fruits. Not as loud as their bushy relatives, these possums instead make a soft, high-pitched, twittering call. Like many Australian marsupials and birds, both species nest in tree hollows. However, if tree hollows are unavailable, these possums will nest in any dark and dry nook, such as those found in the rooves of suburban houses.

The main dispute that people have with possums is sharing their house with these furry bandits. However, there are a few things that you can do to discourage possums from nesting in your roof. Firstly, the best thing to do is to block up all the holes and entrances to your roof. Make sure to do this after dark while the possums are out foraging. It is best to close up all entrances, but if you are unsure if an entrance is being used, stuff it with newspaper, and check in a few days time to see if the newspaper has been pushed aside by a possum. It is also a good idea to trim any tree branches near your house so that there are none within 1.5 meters of the roof. This way, possums can’t jump from one to the other. Secondly, to encourage possums to nest in places other than your roof, you should install a nest box. You can obtain instructions on how to construct a nest box or where to find a nest box supplier on the DEPI (Department of Environment and Primary Industries) website. Another thing to think about is preserving the mature trees on your property. Tree hollows take over 150 years to develop, and due to land clearing and urbanisation there are few mature trees remaining in the suburbs. As many marsupials and birds require tree hollows for nesting, keeping an old tree in your backyard will encourage possums to nest in the tree and not in your roof. Also, try putting mothballs in your roof – apparently they hate the smell!

These species have a varied diet, and are infamous for feeding on the nonnative plants in our gardens, such as Silver Birch trees. Here a Ringtail Possum snacks on a Crepe Myrtle tree. 

These species have a varied diet, and are infamous for feeding on the nonnative plants in our gardens, such as Silver Birch trees. Here a Ringtail Possum snacks on a Crepe Myrtle tree. 

Another annoying habit of our furry neighbours is snacking on our garden plants. To prevent possums from snacking on your trees, install tree collars on those affected. These should be 60 cm wide, and 60 cm above the ground. For shrubs, try putting large quantities of blood and bone at the base of the plant. Finally, don’t feed possums! It encourages them to return to your home, as they learn to associate you and your house with food.

Furthermore, we should try to reduce our impact on possums. They are only a nuisance to us because we have invaded their environment and cleared their habitat, causing shortages of both food and shelter. Under the Wildlife Act of 1975, it is illegal to capture, transport or otherwise interfere with any native animal without a permit. If you wish to evict your possum by hiring a possum removalist, do not have the possum relocated. As possums are highly territorial, it is highly probable that other possums will move in after the first possum has departed. It can actually be beneficial to you to have a possum inhabiting a nest box on your property, as they will fiercely defend their territory, subsequently warding off any other possums that wish to nest in your roof.

Brushtail Possums have pointed ears, have an unmistakeable bushy tail, and are larger than Ringtail Possums.  Photo: David Cook

Brushtail Possums have pointed ears, have an unmistakeable bushy tail, and are larger than Ringtail Possums. Photo: David Cook

Conversely, if you enjoy our native wildlife and want to encourage possums into your backyard, there are a few things you can do to entice them. Plant indigenous eucalypt species to lure them into your garden, and keep your pets inside your home after dark. As previously mentioned, maintain and cherish mature trees, as much of our wildlife (including possums) require tree hollows for nesting.

Unfortunately, the adaptability of our possums has caused these native treasures to be viewed as pests. On the contrary, both Common Brushtail Possums and Common Ringtail Possums should be viewed as the champions of suburbia; where so many species have been displaced, these possums have persisted and adapted, which is something to be admired. They are our little Aussie battlers, so share your backyards, and bask in the success of our friendly neighbourhood possums.