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Possums in the Garden

Possums have adapted well to living in urban areas.  Instead of finding tree hollows, they will take refuge in roof cavities and protected areas in garages.  This can cause problems for the home owner as they bang in the night and make nests in the ceiling.  Living with possums takes some management and care but can be enjoyable.

The brushtail possum and the western ringtail possum are the two most likely to be encountered in and around urban areas of Perth and the south-west of WA.  However, WA is home to seven species of possum with three found in this state alone.

The western ringtail is about the size of a small cat with short, charcoal-grey fur, a pale underbelly and a long, thin tail with white at the tip. The common brushtail is larger and silver-grey in colour and, as the name suggests, has a bushy tail with either a black or white tip.

Possums are nocturnal. They hide in tree hollows or other safe-havens during the day and, just after sunset, emerge to search for food.  In a bush environment they will eat the foliage of trees and shrubs but in a garden, they will eat fruit, rose buds and shoots and quickly strip a garden tree bare of all its leaves.  The gutterall call of a male possum might also be heard at sunset.

With houses taking place of bush and trees, possums have adapted to living in roof cavities and garages.  This becomes irritating to the human residents who hear the noises at night and have to deal with the unpleasant odour and urine stains in the ceiling.  However, rats and mice can also be the culprits.  To determine if the inhabitants in a roof are possums or rodents, look for their droppings.  Possum poos are quite large; about 2cm long and 1cm wide.  Rat and mouse droppings are smaller and anywhere up to 1cm long.

The removal of one possum from the roof will only leave a lovely home for another possum so access points to the roof must be blocked at the same time.  These might be visible at night with a torch whilst the animal enters or pieces of fur may be on the tin or tiles in that area.  Block these points well using metal, vinyl, wood or small wire netting.  Ensure that it is fastened well so that the possum can’t claw it out.  They are strong and can even loosen mortar and push loose bricks aside.

Prune tree branches that provide possums access to the roof line or to neighbouring fences.  Alternatively, make sheet metal collars of around 60cm wide to place around the tree trunks to stop the possums from climbing up.

There will probably be several access points to the roof. Block all but one during the day and after dusk, once the possum has left the roof in search of food, permanently block the remaining one.  To ensure that the possum has in fact left the building, set up a feeding platform with fruit so that you can see him outside before blocking access back to his nest.

Possums are territorial so even though they can be removed from the roof, they will still want to live within the same area.  Provide several nest boxes in trees around the area as alternative homes.  Hollow logs with one end blocked work well as do wooden boxes with an entrance hole.  These are available at Better Pets and Gardens.  Place these at least three metres above the ground in the fork of a tree, facing south away from the sun – remember, they like it dark.  Place a few possum droppings and nest material from the roof into the new home to make it more inviting.  Attach a pest strip to the inside of the box to keep bees from invading in spring.

Make a “dog hair sausage” by stuffing a 30cm length of stocking with dog hair.  Tie a knot in both ends and hang it from the possum’s favourite trees.  The possum will leave these trees alone thinking that there is a dog nearby.

Discourage possums from areas of the garden by spraying with bitter flavoured oils or try a ‘possum scaring owl’ as their massive eyes are said to scare possums away.  Ask about these products at Better Pets and Gardens.

The temptation to hand feed possums should be resisted since this may make them dependent on humans for food and will also cause them to lose their natural fear of other animals.

However, supplementing their food on a high platform is not harmful provided that it is only occasional and is well away from potential predators like dogs, cats and foxes.  Small pieces of fruit, rose petals and even pet biscuits will be enjoyed so long as they are in pieces that their little paws can hold.  Allow the treats to run out for a few days to encourage the possum to find his own source but be aware that it may encourage other possums into the area so there could be a few disagreements between the adults.

Possums may be captured in the roof but must be immediately released on the same property.  The trapping and removal of possums from a property is a last resort and can only be carried out by a licensed contractor.  Studies have shown that those that are relocated have a very low survival rate as most are killed by foxes and dogs or hit by cars while searching for a suitable territory.

All possums are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act and must not be harmed in any way or trapped without authority from CALM. If the possum proves too difficult, contact the local Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) office for advice.

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