by Ali Mackisack

Like many locals, you’ve probably walked over the rocks and along the path leading up to the Castlepoint Lighthouse. But as you walked, were you aware of some other hardy, long-time locals living there in the cracks and crevices beneath your feet? This is a special bunch of lizards – a population of skinks who have survived as an isolated group, partially protected from humans and predators by their rocky fortress.

Want to find out more? So do the team at Sustainable Wairarapa. They’ve taken the first steps in launching a survey of geckos and skinks at the Castlepoint Scenic Reserve – as well as at other Wairarapa locations, and you’re invited to join them.

Sustainable Wairarapa Inc (SWI) is a group of sustainability-minded volunteers with a goal to “do all the things we can do with the skills we have available,” says founding member and Masterton District Council councillor Chris Petersen.

“It’s a loose arrangement of people with a fundamental common interest. We don’t get any ongoing funding, but we now have almost 20 years of being a conduit with the community on environmental issues. We work with the councils, iwi, the community, the Department of Conservation, farmers and other groups, with a focus on solving problems and finding solutions. We now have a great track record with stakeholders in local, regional and central government, of being reliable partners who can deliver.”

Over the last twenty years SWI have been involved with a wide variety of projects and issues. These include;

  • stream and wetland restorations such as the Makoura Stream riparian plantings,
  • a recycled water (farm irrigation) feasibility study in association with Masterton District Council’s wastewater treatment plant upgrade,
  • farm water quality management – including the use of constructed wetlands, bioreactors, detainment bunds, riparian widths, and on-farm monitoring,
  • eucalyptus trials, using irrigated wastewater to produce ground-durable posts,
  • rural land use and water allocation issues,
  • lizard, beetle, moth and spider surveys, and
  • bird and bat monitoring.

While Sustainable Wairarapa hasn’t traditionally had the funding to be directly involved in biodiversity projects, that changed in mid-2020 when the group was allocated funding for a number of projects, from the Department of Conservation’s Community Fund. These include surveys of moths and beetles to enable comparisons over time on the effects of fragmentation and genetic diversity, and lizard surveys at Castlepoint Scenic Reserve and Ocean Beach/Onoke Spit.

There is also funding to set up ten acoustic units for bird and bat population monitoring in the Rewa Bush area – 1200 hectares of bush, landlocked by pines, with little access and ravines almost impossible to get into. Volunteers have been invited to work alongside experts to carry out the surveys and projects, some of which need special permission under the 1953 Wildlife Act.

The team at Sustainable Wairarapa usually work alongside others to ensure that the full benefit of these projects is realised. University students working in the field – who sometimes find it difficult to get all the required permissions to work with our native wildlife, have already tapped into the projects and got some valuable hands-on experience while bringing their specialist knowledge to a wider group.

“People really value the opportunity to get hands-on,” says Ray Stewart, another founding member of the group. “They might be talking about this sort of stuff every day, but not getting the chance to do it and see it. From our point of view, you’ve got to have everyone in the tent together, to really work out what’s going on. And this way, everyone benefits. There’s limited funding so if you want to get good value, then collaborating on these kinds of projects is a fundamental method of adding value.”

And highlighting the national importance of local projects, both Te Papa and the University of Auckland have expressed an interest in specific aspects of the projects, and Victoria University of Wellington is trialling their software’s ability to isolate-out specific species.

While these are great experiences for those already working in the field with particular areas of expertise, there are also plenty of opportunities for those who just want to get involved. If checking out the Castlepoint lizards isn’t your thing, you could instead be digging or checking pitfall traps, hanging out in the bush at night with a lamp and a white sheet to monitor moths, setting up the acoustic recorders for birds and bats, or perhaps even searching for the elusive katipō spider.

Volunteers who are unable to “go bush” can also have a valuable role to play. “The software used for the acoustic recording is easy to use, but it can be time consuming too,” says Ray. “People can download the software from Victoria University for free, and then contribute to the project by listening to what we’ve collected from the bird and bat monitoring and analysing that data.”

Since late 2020, SWI have also been seeking funding to undertake a Wairarapa Indigenous Biodiversity Literature Review, to pull together all of the many relevant papers, studies, stories and reports into a searchable and usable format.

All of the projects and the various ways to get involved, reflect the group’s conscious decision to ensure that their work and influence is “bottom-up rather than top-down,” as Ray puts it.

“We’re all volunteers here,” Chris adds. “We’re all about local issues and practical work, not just sitting and talking. In that way, we are the upward influence of community involvement, having an impact on the decision-makers at local and regional levels.”

Sustainable Wairarapa is just one of the many local groups working within the Wairarapa Pūkaha to Kawakawa Alliance network. Learn more about WaiP2K at >

Sustainable Wairarapa group at Pontatahi Lizard Sanctuary

Sustainable Wairarapa group at Pontatahi Lizard Sanctuary. Photo: Ali Mackisack


Tim Hewitt and Sustainable Wairarapa volunteers instaling traps and tracking tunnels at Pontatahi Lizard Sanctuary

Tim Hewitt and Sustainable Wairarapa volunteers installing traps and tracking tunnels at the Pontatahi Lizard Sanctuary. Photo: Ali Mackisack


Ray Stewart digging a pitfall trap at Rewa Bush

Ray Stewart digging a pitfall trap at Rewa Bush. Photo: Julia Ryan


Sustainable Wairarapa volunteers by a large miro tree in Rewa Bush

Sustainable Wairarapa volunteers by a large miro tree in Rewa Bush. Photo: Julia Ryan