Fri, Jun 16, 2023 3:26 PM

Connecting community with the wild


Tessa Jaine

Home to kākāriki, giant wētā, Marlborough’s green gecko and many varieties of native flora, the Koru Native Wildlife Centre is a remarkable sanctuary located in Grovetown.

Words: Adrienne Matthews

In 1995, Dutch couple Brian and Ellen Plaisier fell madly in love with a block of land in the outer Pelorus Sounds and purchased it. “We had absolutely no idea what we were getting into,” laughs Ellen. “There was no road access, only a steep farm track, and even though we could get there by boat, there wasn’t a way up from the beach other than a slippery accessway.”

“We were enchanted by the beauty of the place and the opportunity to create our own life in a piece of paradise. We were incredibly naïve, but Brian is practical and capable of getting things done and we went for it,” she says.

A great drawcard was the diversity of plant life. The Marlborough region is considered an area of substantial ecological value with its wide range of flora and fauna, including native broadleaf trees and plants, manuka and kanuka and beech forest. “There were even some giant native trees such as rimu, matai and kahikatea that made it extra special,” says Ellen.

They quickly discovered however, that they had a large predator problem. Pigs, possums, rats, and stoats were helping themselves to much of the precious plant life, native animals, insects and birds.

A fence was constructed around the perimeter of the nature reserve to keep out the largest of the destructive pests, while inside, predator control was put in place to get rid of the smaller ones. “The change was remarkable, says Ellen.” The bird life increased greatly and it was a real lesson in the difference you can make to an environment when you remove predators.”

“In 2011 we set up the charitable Tui Nature Reserve Wildlife Trust, guided by a Board of Trustees including support from Ngāti Kuia. We needed likeminded people to contribute to the project,” says Ellen. “We had assistance from the Marlborough District Council at that time who were keen to see predator control actively taking place, and the Lotteries Commission and Rata Foundation also came on-board.”

“We were also looking after a neighbouring property, so there were eighty hectares in total,” says Ellen. “The predator control was so successful that we came up with the idea of breeding native species. We also realised that we wanted to be able to impart what we had learnt about conservation to more people and that the outer Pelorus Sounds with its limited access was not going to be a good place from which to do that.”

In 2020 the property was sold to someone with an equal passion for the environment. With the support of New Zealand King Salmon, the trusts’ focus shifted to establish Koru Native Wildlife Centre located in Linkwater, where it remained for four years. “We still felt we weren’t close enough to a large enough community where our work could have an impact, so when we found land near Grovetown, which is close to Blenheim and where restoration of the Grovetown Lagoon and the Spring Creek Kahikatea Reserve is taking place, we jumped at the chance.”

A central feature of the trust is the breeding programme established by Ellen and Brian under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation. “It is very hard to get permits to breed native species in captivity but we have been successful in being permitted to raise red and yellow-crowned kākāriki, the Stephen’s Island/Cook Strait giant wētā and the Marlborough green gecko,” explains Ellen. “It is an excellent combination with wide appeal to a range of visitors."

“Red-crowned kākāriki are the easiest to breed and you have to have experience with breeding them before you can apply to breed the yellow-crowned,” she says.

“In the future we would love to be able to breed the orange-fronted kākāriki as well. There are less than five hundred thought to be left in the wild. Any kākāriki breeding programme has to tie-in with release plans in place. Recent releases were at the Abel Tasman (Project Janszoon) and Puangiangi Island (Marlborough Sounds). Kākāriki are parakeets that are social birds who like to live in flocks, so the aviaries are close together with mating pairs separated during the breeding season.

Ellen Plaisier with one of the centre’s kākāriki chicks.

“The Marlborough green gecko are a fun reptile and not nocturnal like other species,” says Ellen, “which is great for visitors, especially children who really seem to relate to them. They are not bred for release because there is no associated release programme available at this stage.”

Marlborough green are a particular favourite for children who visit the centre.

Often the star of the show is the Stephen’s Island/ Cook Strait giant wētā. “They are wiped out in most places because they are so susceptible to rodents. At full maturity the females are around ten centimetres long and lay their eggs in the ground, so the female is easily spotted as an easy meal. Wētās have been on the planet for millions of years, even before the end of the dinosaurs. This shows what an adaptable species they are,” says Ellen.

“They hibernate during the winter months, although we do try to create environments for the wētā to hibernate in while still viewable."

Stephen’s Island/Cook Strait giant wētā are endangered in the wild but flourish at the centre.

The latest project underway at Koru Native Wildlife Centre is the establishment of a densely-planted forest on what was once a paddock. “The first step is a fence to keep cats and rabbits out. “We have already experimented by establishing a smaller area in less than two years which has shown remarkable growth,” says Ellen.

“Plants are put very close together to support each other, speed up growth and suppress weeds. There are multiple layers with many different types, all indigenous to the specific area, that encourage insect life and smaller creatures that need to hide as well as to attract bird life in the trees above.”

For the new section of four thousand square metres, most of the plants have already been ordered thanks to the Government’s Matariki Tu Rākau Funding scheme. Planting of the pioneering, sturdy plants began in autumn. Manuka, kanuka and coprosma quickly attract bird life and form shelter for the more delicate plants such as ferns, that go in last.

“The result will be an area full of different varieties which create great biodiversity and eventually become an addition to the wonderful work that is already done by the lagoon and kahikatea forest,” says Ellen.

Although the property is rented, the planted area will be protected by a covenant, so will be permanently saved for future generations.

“The whole point of our life’s work is to show people how, even in a small way, they can contribute to the health of our local environments. In a small backyard, native plants and trees can be introduced that will attract all sorts of life, improving biodiversity and the lives of people who live amongst it.”

Like so many conservation projects, the centre is solely volunteer-based, “We appreciate the support the trust has from New Zealand King Salmon and Yealand’s Sustainable Fund, but really hope this year more people and organisations will see the benefit of what we are doing to raise awareness amongst the community and visitors who come here so we can increase the amount of work we do.”

Outward Bound participants kicked off the planting project, getting over 1000 trees in the ground this autumn.

Tours can be booked online, “they take about ninety minutes,” explains Ellen. “Once people see the species here, they are much more likely to develop an appreciation of the importance of looking after our environment. We also have interesting videos about the tree wētā and a microscope room where those attending can appreciate how beautiful and clever nature is.”

“With the current climate challenges, we are keen to find ways we can contribute to a cleaner and healthier environment and we still feel that planting is one of the best things to do. It is nice to think that we can create something that will be here after we have gone, that we will have made an improvement to the environment that will outlast us for generations to come.”

To book a tour at Koru Native Wildlife Centre

To support the Centre, visit

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