Healing belts from possum pelts

JILL GALLOWAY
Last updated 13:59 25/06/2013
Natures Support owner Campbell Bary
WARWICK SMITH/Fairfax NZ

PROFIT FROM PESTS: Natures Support owner Campbell Bary says the company’s possum-fur therapeutic belts have been a hit with customers in New Zealand and overseas.

Phyllis Thornton
WARWICK SMITH/Fairfaz NZ
SKILLED WORK: Phyllis Thornton sews a possum leather and fur theradhpeutic belt. She has been with the Marton company for 26 years.

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Mahe Drysdale, who won a gold medal at the London Olympic Games, thought arthritis would force him to retire from rowing. Then he tried a possum fur belt around his back.

He says he doubts he would have become a world champion without it.

Possum fur is very soft and the warmth it offers has attracted people to the belts. Some also think they have health-giving properties.

The belts are made for sports people and for therapeutic use.

Marton manufacturer Natures Support collects possum fur and leather from a Woodville company and sews it into belts, adding stretchy fabric and velcro. The business is based in an art-deco building off Marton's main street.

Owner Campbell Bary employs a woman who stitches about 200 belts a week. There is also a marketer and a cutter.

At present the belts are marketed only in New Zealand, but they have gone to people in other countries, such as the United States, Denmark and Australia, who heard about how good the product is by word of mouth, says administrator and marketer Charmaine Wilson.

The company is having trouble keeping up with the demand in New Zealand, so it hasn't marketed the belts further afield, Bary says.

They are the company's main product, but it also sells possum-fur insoles and rugs.

The Marton factory used to make 130,000 jerseys a year, Bary says, but it was beaten in the jersey game by China and closed.

"Since then it has been extremely difficult to compete against cheaper imports, but without them, we would be paying megabucks for our TVs and fridges."

So Bary doesn't begrudge imports.

"Possums are protected in Australia, so there'd be no competition from there, and China probably doesn't have any, so they wouldn't compete either."

This made possum fur and leather belts a goer for him to manufacture.

Everyone in New Zealand knows that possums are pests, but marketing them in places where natural fur is a no-no might be harder.

"I thought I'd do something unique." Telling the story of saving native bush from pesky possums is one that needs to go hand in hand with any overseas sales, he says.

Possums are the only temperate animals known to have hollow hair. The others - polar bears, caribou and alpacas - tend to live in cold climates.

Natures Support says hollow hair means possum fibres fill with heat to a stable temperature, promoting greater blood circulation and nerve relief, allowing tired and strained muscles to relax.

The possum skins are tanned in Woodville, using vegetable tannins. That is something Bary likes.

The pests are killed and their skin is naturally tanned and then made into belts, with the furry side in, giving relief to people with bad lower or middle backs.

Some new products are in the pipeline, but the company wants to bed in the possum belts first.

Belts are returned only if they are the wrong size, Wilson says.

They are available from small to extra large.

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The sports belts are narrower than the therapeutic ones, but Bary says none are simple to make.

"They're reasonably expensive. There has to be enough money for the trapper [and] the tannery. The skin has to be cut and sewn.

"They are not cheap to construct or easy to make."

Bary also has a farm, sheep and beef station Ben Nevis, near Dannevirke.

Not only do possums destroy forests, but they infect cattle with bovine tuberculosis, threatening the country's valuable beef and dairy industries, so on farms possums are a real pest.

"We were driving home the other day and saw three possums.

"I would normally have run them over, but, instead, I saw three skins and three belts."

- Manawatu Standard

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