ANDY LOWE makes no apologies for being on a big environmental mission - to see New Zealand pest-free over the next few decades.

It may seem an ambitious goal, but this is not a pipe dream for the Hawke's Bay businessman.

It involves a clear strategy based on taking the results of more than a decade's work at the Cape Kidnappers headland and the related Cape to City biodiversity project now under way across a vast track of neighbouring Hawke's Bay land.

Over the next 20 years, Mr Lowe wants to see the Cape to City initiative replicated "over millions of hectares" across the country to create a pest-free New Zealand.

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It's a simple concept, and achievable, he says.

"If you go back 12 years, to when we started the Cape Sanctuary project, everyone thought we were mad. Who would have thought that we'd get to where we are now, with the biggest diversity of native birds on an area of mainland coastal New Zealand on the cape?"

Cape Sanctuary is the largest privately owned and funded wildlife restoration project of its kind in the country.

The sanctuary covers three properties on the Cape Kidnappers peninsula: the Cape Kidnappers Station owned by US businessman Julian Robertson, part of Haupouri Station owned by the Hansen family and Ocean Beach Wilderness Property owned by Mr Lowe and his wife Liz.

The vision is to bring back the coastal communities of land birds, sea birds, reptiles and invertebrates that once existed on the peninsula.

The project began with the building of a 10.6km coast-to-coast predator-proof fence across the neck of the peninsula. The fence, completed in 2007, prevents predators reinvading the 2500ha headland.

Major improvement in biodiversity, including reintroduction and population growth of endangered species, have resulted from the initiative, while at the same time the area has continued as productive farmland and a recreational destination.

"Who would have thought that was possible, with everyone carrying on with their recreation in the area, and you've also got farming, and more pine trees there than native scrub. You've also got cropping, in there, and sheep and beef production," Mr Lowe says.

"Sustainability is about co-existence - how do we live, work and play together. It's all about proving to the world that there is no reason why these endangered species can't co-exist with farming, food production and human habitation and recreation."

Now a larger environmental restoration project, in part modelled on the Cape Sanctuary initiative, is under way in the Bay.

The Cape to City project is a "world-leading" attempt to make Hawke's Bay predator-free, using low-cost, large-scale predator control throughout 26,000ha of farmland between Waimarama and Havelock North. The aim is to restore native species and plants and add value for farm businesses.

Cape to City and sister project Poutiri Ao o Tane will receive more than $6 million of funding over five years through a collaborative partnership between the Hawke's Bay Regional Council, the Department of Conservation, Landcare Research, Cape Sanctuary and the Aotearoa Foundation, as well as private businesses and other Crown research institutes.

Campbell Leckie, the regional council's land-services manager, who is also the project manager for the Cape to City, says the initiative will begin to focus on predators such as stoats, ferrets, and feral cats.

Mr Leckie says the programme has been modelled on the successes of Poutiri Ao o Tane, based near Tutira, which has been running for four years, as well as the Cape Sanctuary project and the council's on-farm possum-control area programme.

"Hawke's Bay Regional Council has been working with farmers to reduce possums to very low levels through the successful possum-control area programme, and this is taking it to the next level," he says.

"The possum-control layer is in place, so our goal is to integrate these other pests, at little or no additional costs to the farming community and to deliver additional benefits to them."

At the heart of the Cape to City initiative is a realisation that making a difference to the country's biodiversity requires recognition of the need for better integration between private and public environmental restoration efforts.

Most of New Zealand's land mass is privately owned and much is used for primary production.

A smaller part, mostly managed by the Department of Conservation, has high conservation value but is forced to contend with continual reinvasion of pests from "over the fence".

Large-scale projects such as Cape to City and Poutiri Ao o Tane seek to integrate biodiversity restoration into "business-as-usual" primary production and work in ways that deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.

One aim is to reduce the cost of pest-control high-tech traps which send a signal when pests are caught, so trappers only need to check traps they know have been triggered.

"If you say to a farmer, there are 100 traps on your farm and you need to go around them each month to clear and check them - that's a significant commitment for a farmer who has their own business to run," Mr Leckie says.

"But if you have 100 traps with long-life lures such as scent-impregnated oil, that are linked wirelessly, this sends a text message as to which of the three to five traps over that month have gone off where and when. And that's a much more manageable commitment."

Mr Lowe believes a continued focus on research and development, effective use of technology, and a collaborative effort by Government agencies and the private sector are required to achieve the pest/predator-free goal he and others are pushing for.

"We need to step up and do a whole lot more research and development, which is what Cape to City is about," he says.

"There is more extinction of species happening now, in our lifetime, than has ever happened before. How can we live with that?"

A mark of success for the Cape to City initiative, and the wider national predator-eradication goal, will be getting to the point where the Cape Sanctuary predator fence does not need to be replaced because there are no longer significant numbers of pests threatening the peninsula, he says.

"If that fence is still there in 20 years' time, we've failed."

Mr Lowe says the projects are not a threat to farming businesses.

"We're not talking about going to farmers and saying, we want sustainability on your land, you're going to lose production. We can't lose production because farmers don't actually make too much money off their land, so it's not about turning the tap off for the farmer. It's about setting a vision - whether it's 20 or 30 years out - as to how we use technology and research to work out how we get our environment into balance.

"The farmer has to be able to keep doing what they're doing but what we're doing now is not sustainable - we're just creating a mess for our kids and grandkids," he says. "If you cut off production, and the economic engine, you have social issues. That's why we have to get sustainable, and we're not now."

There is a lot of work to do, but he and others are up for the challenge.

"You've got to get out there and lead with a strategy and a vision. Sometimes you don't know how you're going to get there, but you know you're going to get there as long as you stick to what you're trying to achieve," he says. "It's something that wins the hearts and minds of people and we'll get there."