It's the little education programme that could. The Bushy Park education programme gives about 2000 students each year a hands-on experience of New Zealand wildlife conservation.

Yet - unlike education programmes in much larger sanctuaries such as Zealandia, in Wellington - the Bushy Park education programme is run entirely by volunteers.

With a minimal budget, this group of dedicated educational and conservation enthusiasts runs on "a cup of tea and a biscuit", as one of the volunteers puts it.

The programme is jointly co-ordinated by Margie Beautrais, educator at the Whanganui Regional Museum, and Robin Paul, former principal at Whanganui East School.

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Bushy Park is a 100ha wildlife sanctuary in virgin bush about 25km northwest of Whanganui, off State Highway 3.

It has predator fencing and more than 3km of easy-access walking tracks.

Its plant life ranges from tiny orchids through to ratanui, the 43m-high largest specimen of northern rata.

Birdlife includes saddleback, fantail, kereru, grey warbler, morepork, stitchbird, North Island robin, New Zealand falcon, shining cuckoo and tui.

Bushy Park education volunteer Esther Williams with students from Upokongaro School. Photo / Bevan Conley
Bushy Park education volunteer Esther Williams with students from Upokongaro School. Photo / Bevan Conley

The education programme has been running at Bushy Park since 2001. At that time there was a paid educator, whose funding came from Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC).

"But this is a contestable fund, and you have to reapply every few years," Mrs Beautrais said.

"At some point Bushy Park didn't succeed in renewing that contract. The educator continued on in a voluntary capacity for a while, but after a few years he stepped back from it."

Mrs Beautrais said despite that there was still a desire from some local schools for conservation education based at Bushy Park.

"St John's Hill School was looking for advice about coming out to Bushy Park, and their deputy principal, Kevin Booth, had a meeting with [Bushy Park volunteer] Esther Williams," she said.

"I heard about the meeting - and I gate-crashed it."

Around the same time Robin Paul and his wife Marianne both retired from teaching and were spending time volunteering at Bushy Park.

"We had contact with Esther and Margie, and from that a team of volunteer educators came together," Mr Paul said.

The education team sits under the Bushy Park Trust and has its own strategic plan. As well as being a volunteer educator, Mr Paul is a member of the trust, providing a link between the education group and the trust.

The team works under the broad guidance of sanctuary manager Mandy Brooke.

"Mandy oversees us and helps to guide and direct and support us," Mr Paul said. "She is very busy with her own work, but we do liaise with her on a regular basis."

The team has several partners that help the education programme run more smoothly.

These include the Whanganui Regional Museum, the Sarjeant Gallery and the Department of Conservation. There's also Rotary North - without their help, it would be much harder to run the programme.

"They've really taken Bushy Park under their wing as a special project," Mr Paul said.

"They helped with the area around the wetland - the access was quite difficult. They've put a lot of work into that and upgrading the public tracks, which the schools use, and our outdoor classroom. Rotary have been able to access funding through the Eleanor Burgess Trust. Now we can take school groups through and they're a lot safer."

Schools make their bookings at Bushy Park through the website. The booking process includes saying what the focus of their trip is.

"They might say science, so we put together a programme that meets whatever their curriculum is. If it's arts-based, then we call on Sietske Jansma from the Sarjeant Gallery to help out.," Mrs Beautrais said.

"We find that mostly schools want to learn about science, but there are some that have an arts focus."

The educators take the students through a rotation of different activities, including learning about the wetland, predators, and other elements of the sanctuary.

"We have a standard rotation, and schools can opt in or opt out of that. If they want us to modify elements, we're more than happy to do that," Mr Paul said.

"A key part of our rotation is predator trapping - it's a key part of all sanctuaries, really. Because if we want New Zealand to be predator free by 2050, we need to be talking to kids about that now. Bushy Park, and other sanctuaries like it, are an important part of making that happen.

"The kids that come to Bushy Park are our future, and we need to be talking to them and telling them these stories.

"Bushy Park is such a natural environment. When we go to other sanctuaries I've noticed that they're often much larger, but you don't hear as much bird life. You walk down the tracks here and there's a toutouwai here, a hihi there - it's around you all the time."

Upokongaro School is just one of the many Whanganui schools that use the Bushy Park education programme. Principal Warren Brown said the school had been bringing students to Bushy Park for the past five years.

The school recently brought two classes to the sanctuary to spend a day with the volunteer educators.

"It's a chance for our kids to have a look at the environment around them, and also some of the wildlife that is here at Bushy Park."

Mr Brown said Upokongaro School had a focus on giving kids a variety of learning experiences, including real-life experiences.

"On this occasion it's a visit to Bushy Park. It's a wonderful resource for our kids to come and visit and learn about the environment. So we build what they learn here into our curriculum. It gives the students something to attach their learning to."

Mr Brown said it was one thing for students to learn something in a classroom, but quite another to experience it in person.

"This way, they get to feel it and hear it and really experience it for themselves. It's really valuable for them."

Upokongaro School students said they especially enjoyed using the nets at the wetland and learning about traps and the different predators that threaten native wildlife.

About 80 per cent of Whanganui schools - across all levels - are involved with the Bushy Park education programme in some way.

One of the most enthusiastic is St John's Hill School, which has taken on board some of the lessons learned at Bushy Park and started applying them to its own environment.

"During the course of the school year every class from St John's Hill School visits Bushy Park. So it seemed like a logical choice to begin this concept of the Halo Project, which is tracking and trapping within the school," Mr Paul said.

"We're currently working with a group of students who have been setting tracking tunnels within the school. We've looked at the results of their tracking along with DoC staff.

"So now we're looking to place tracking tunnels into the neighbours' yards. The kids have composed letters to go the school's neighbours, explaining what they're doing and seeking permission to place the tracking tunnels."

Mr Paul said there was evidence of predators such as hedgehogs and rabbits on the school grounds.

The education team has just established the Bushy Park Education School Trap Library, a series of traps that schools can borrow.

The number of students visiting Bushy Park with their schools is definitely growing - and the education team has the data to prove it.

In 2014, 350 students took part in the education programme; this year, so far, that number is 1750.

And it's not just Whanganui students who are visiting. Students regularly visit from Manawatu and Wellington; while tertiary students visit from as far away as Europe and the United States.

So what does the future hold for the Bushy Park education programme?

First on the team's wish list is funding to be able to pay an education co-ordinator, Mrs Beautrais said.

"We'd still need a team of volunteers - but it would be good to have a co-ordinator.

"If we had enough money we could pay someone for a day's work every time they turned up to work with a school - rather than a cup of tea and a biscuit, which is what they get now."

+For more on the Bushy Park education programme, visit www.bushyparksanctuary.org.nz.