A grassroots Rotorua conservation programme recognised as a leading education and research organisation is celebrating 20 years of ensuring the survival of Kiwi birds of prey and educating people about their plight.

Wingspan Birds of Prey, begun on a small property in Paradise Valley Rd in the 1980s by former Rainbow Springs curator Debbie Stewart, is hosting a dinner and auction as staff celebrate two decades since becoming a charitable trust in 1992.

The 2012 celebration dinner and auction will be on Saturday night at Skyline as they kick off a major fundraising venture to buy a property so they can "spread their wings" and have somewhere to call home.

"Our site is rented and we can't expand. We want to remain in Rotorua ...we are looking at getting 50ha of land to support the conservation programme into perpetuity ...It will be a shared park ...the largest conservation project in the country. It's all very exciting."


When the programme began, Ms Stewart was sole falconer supported by volunteers. Since then it has grown to provide work for four full-time staff including falconer Noel Hyde.

She knew her efforts would pay off for the threatened birds even though some "people doubted it would last the distance", she told The Daily Post.

"It was grassroots. Lots of people said it was really brave to do as a conservation thing. Others suggested that conservation was something that wouldn't last the distance. Back then it wasn't on the radar for people. They always thought conservation was done by the Government."

But survive they have, successfully caring for around 600 wild falcons and returning them to the wild once fit enough, into places as far south as Otago and in the wider central North Island, winning awards for their efforts.

They have physically hand-bred about 1000 birds using methods dating back 4000 years to train them before being released at six months.

Ms Stewart said they knew the bird population was growing because people were noticing the birds and notifying the sanctuary.

"We stack the odds so they do survive."

What she is most proud of is educating people and vineyard owners where some birds are released. This has allowed the birds to breed in the wild freely.


"People used to kill them. They weren't aware how significant they were. People are more aware today."

The trust is hosting the auction on Saturday night after the dinner with a multitude of collectable items to buy including a matching set of Dan Carter and Honor Dillon signed sports balls, Auckland Zoo animal encounters, a night with event speaker Dr Ruud Kleinpaste, $5 notes signed by Sir Edmund Hillary, and one of Rotorua photographer Andrew Warner's mounted God's Road exhibition pieces.