The business of eco-restoration

Ecoworks Founders: Steve Sawyer and Robyn Wilkie.
The giant weta

“FROM here we save the world,” says Robyn Wilkie of her and husband Steve Sawyer’s Ecoworks HQ at Makaraka.

Ecoworks is a privately-owned business with environmental and wildlife solutions at heart that was established in 2003.

“In business, that’s not a long time,” says Steve. “Many businesses fall over in the first five years. Others fall over within 10 years. Ecoworks felt pretty secure from the beginning.”

Since launching the business, Steve and Robyn’s work has taken them as far as New Zealand’s most southern islands, to Fiji, where they trained wildlife-search-dog handlers, and more recently to Hawaii.

The couple’s conservation and biodiversity projects include work with endangered species such as the black robin and the pelagic sea-bird taiko in the Chatham Islands.

An innovative predator-proof fence design they recently introduced to the Hawaiian volcanic island of Maui was a such a success, a second fence is about to be installed there.

Business is good but starting it up was a leap of faith driven by a passion for wildlife conservation and biodiversity, says Steve.

“It’s important to be passionate about what you’re doing. The projects we do make a difference to our region.”

Until 2003, he and Robyn were employed by the Department of Conservation. Ecoworks’ launch coincided with Nick’s Head owners John and Amy Griffin’s search for someone who had experience in reintroducing at-risk species, says Steve.

When Mr Griffin outlined his plan to restore part of Nick’s Head Station to what it was like 600 to 700 years ago, Steve suggested building a predator-proof fence.

“He hadn’t heard of that, he told me to draw something up. I was back in an hour or two. He looked at it and said ‘Great, how soon can we have a fence?’”

Predator management is the first step in restoring the ecology of a site, says Robyn. Rebuilding a forest ecosytem at Nick’s Head has been a 10-year process. Paddocks used for cattle were planted out with 46,000 native trees. They number close to 500,000 now.

Introducing wetas to the bellies of tuatara

Wetas were introduced to the station to provide a food source for the world’s only living dinosaurs, tuatara. In April last year, 20 tuatara were released at Nick’s Head.

“Every step is exciting,” says Steve. “When you get to a point where you can introduce a weta to an environment, it’s exciting because you’re on your way.”

In 2005, Ecoworks was the first in the world to successfully use solar-powered, acoustic-attraction methods and artificial burrows to establish breeding colonies of six pelagic seabird species at Nick’s Head.

“Experts said it would take at least 10 years for seabirds to return. Seven months later we had grey-faced petrels using our burrows.”

Ecoworks’ projects mostly come about through word-of-mouth.

“A lot of the time landowners will come to me because they want to do a restoration or conservation project but don’t know how to go about it,” says Mr Sawyer.

“I sit down with them and come up with ideas. Then we work out how to get funding. We’re the ideas department, the fundraising department and the project managers.”

Ecoworks is one of only about three companies in New Zealand that offer the whole package, he says.

“We keep busy, and we like to treat our clients as friends. We’ve had massive support. When Dame Anne Salmond does lectures around the world, she tells people what Ecoworks is doing. It’s a real team effort.”

The scale and nature of Steve and Robyn’s eco-projects mean the business often works collaboratively with a network of organisations. These include iwi groups, DoC, forestry, Gisborne District Council and US corporations.

“A lot of our projects rely on funding applications and sponsors. We work with companies and conservation ventures, but returns to shareholders matter. We’re looking at how we can add value to their end-products through good public relations or involvement with the community.

“There’s a real thing these days about businesses selling their story — like with Icebreaker products. You know where their wool comes from. People overseas like that organic story, particularly out of New Zealand,” says Steve. “There’s huge scope in Gisborne and New Zealand for that.”

Ecoworks sometimes finds unexpected niches. Turbines owned and operated by US wind-power generation companies occasionally knock birds out of the sky. They are obliged by law to mitigate those losses.

Steve and Robyn’s team is working with two US wind-power companies to enclose a 10-acre area of land on the Hawaiian island of Maui to help save the endangered Hawaiian petrel and Newells shearwater.

Steve says the Americans realised New Zealand had good knowledge of predator control and the installation of pest-proof fences.

“I spent many years looking at fences and thought we could do better. We took the best bits of all the fences we saw around New Zealand and came up with a stronger design.”

There is a Kiwi way of business success, he says. “We can be the world first at doing things.”

“FROM here we save the world,” says Robyn Wilkie of her and husband Steve Sawyer’s Ecoworks HQ at Makaraka.

Ecoworks is a privately-owned business with environmental and wildlife solutions at heart that was established in 2003.

“In business, that’s not a long time,” says Steve. “Many businesses fall over in the first five years. Others fall over within 10 years. Ecoworks felt pretty secure from the beginning.”

Since launching the business, Steve and Robyn’s work has taken them as far as New Zealand’s most southern islands, to Fiji, where they trained wildlife-search-dog handlers, and more recently to Hawaii.

The couple’s conservation and biodiversity projects include work with endangered species such as the black robin and the pelagic sea-bird taiko in the Chatham Islands.

An innovative predator-proof fence design they recently introduced to the Hawaiian volcanic island of Maui was a such a success, a second fence is about to be installed there.

Business is good but starting it up was a leap of faith driven by a passion for wildlife conservation and biodiversity, says Steve.

“It’s important to be passionate about what you’re doing. The projects we do make a difference to our region.”

Until 2003, he and Robyn were employed by the Department of Conservation. Ecoworks’ launch coincided with Nick’s Head owners John and Amy Griffin’s search for someone who had experience in reintroducing at-risk species, says Steve.

When Mr Griffin outlined his plan to restore part of Nick’s Head Station to what it was like 600 to 700 years ago, Steve suggested building a predator-proof fence.

“He hadn’t heard of that, he told me to draw something up. I was back in an hour or two. He looked at it and said ‘Great, how soon can we have a fence?’”

Predator management is the first step in restoring the ecology of a site, says Robyn. Rebuilding a forest ecosytem at Nick’s Head has been a 10-year process. Paddocks used for cattle were planted out with 46,000 native trees. They number close to 500,000 now.

Introducing wetas to the bellies of tuatara

Wetas were introduced to the station to provide a food source for the world’s only living dinosaurs, tuatara. In April last year, 20 tuatara were released at Nick’s Head.

“Every step is exciting,” says Steve. “When you get to a point where you can introduce a weta to an environment, it’s exciting because you’re on your way.”

In 2005, Ecoworks was the first in the world to successfully use solar-powered, acoustic-attraction methods and artificial burrows to establish breeding colonies of six pelagic seabird species at Nick’s Head.

“Experts said it would take at least 10 years for seabirds to return. Seven months later we had grey-faced petrels using our burrows.”

Ecoworks’ projects mostly come about through word-of-mouth.

“A lot of the time landowners will come to me because they want to do a restoration or conservation project but don’t know how to go about it,” says Mr Sawyer.

“I sit down with them and come up with ideas. Then we work out how to get funding. We’re the ideas department, the fundraising department and the project managers.”

Ecoworks is one of only about three companies in New Zealand that offer the whole package, he says.

“We keep busy, and we like to treat our clients as friends. We’ve had massive support. When Dame Anne Salmond does lectures around the world, she tells people what Ecoworks is doing. It’s a real team effort.”

The scale and nature of Steve and Robyn’s eco-projects mean the business often works collaboratively with a network of organisations. These include iwi groups, DoC, forestry, Gisborne District Council and US corporations.

“A lot of our projects rely on funding applications and sponsors. We work with companies and conservation ventures, but returns to shareholders matter. We’re looking at how we can add value to their end-products through good public relations or involvement with the community.

“There’s a real thing these days about businesses selling their story — like with Icebreaker products. You know where their wool comes from. People overseas like that organic story, particularly out of New Zealand,” says Steve. “There’s huge scope in Gisborne and New Zealand for that.”

Ecoworks sometimes finds unexpected niches. Turbines owned and operated by US wind-power generation companies occasionally knock birds out of the sky. They are obliged by law to mitigate those losses.

Steve and Robyn’s team is working with two US wind-power companies to enclose a 10-acre area of land on the Hawaiian island of Maui to help save the endangered Hawaiian petrel and Newells shearwater.

Steve says the Americans realised New Zealand had good knowledge of predator control and the installation of pest-proof fences.

“I spent many years looking at fences and thought we could do better. We took the best bits of all the fences we saw around New Zealand and came up with a stronger design.”

There is a Kiwi way of business success, he says. “We can be the world first at doing things.”

Pest-proof fencing

In 2010 Ecoworks developed its own pest-proof fence design. The design is simple to build they believe they can develop even cheaper options in future.

Ecoworks recently assisted Firstwind Energy LLC in Hawaii to build two pest-free enclosures to protect Newell’s shearwater and Hawaiian petrel. These enclosures will use acoustic attraction in an effort to attract these species into the protected environments.

The Ecoworks team flew to Hawaii to train local fencing contractors how to build their design. Predator-proof fencing allows land managers to eradicate vertebrate pests and rapidly develop a complete ecosystem.

Ecoworks manages the Young Nicks Head Pest Free Enclosure and the Motu Kiwi Creche site. Both fenced sites are developing wildlife populations that would not be possible without pest fencing.

Text and image from Ecoworks New Zealand website.

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