Rare Cook Strait giant wētā found outside Wellington predator-free sanctuary

A rare giant wētā has been found outside its Wellington predator-free sanctuary.

Experts say it's the first time the species has been spotted living without this kind of protection in over a century.

And the find's come as boost for conservationists.

Volunteer trail builder Rob Lee was digging through dirt while planting trees when he struck gold - gold of the native insect kind.

"The wētā was sort of in the grass here just to the side of the spade," he says.

And it wasn't just any wētā, it was a Cook Strait giant wētā - bigger than the size of a mouse.

"Picked it up and it probably sat that big in the hand with pretty long antenna," Lee says.

Then it crawled up his arm in what's become the first recorded sighting of the species beyond this sanctuary fence line.

"This is likely the first mainland population outside of a predatory exclusion area that we've seen in well over a 100 years," says Zealandia director Danielle Shanahan.

"Thank god I didn't slice it in half," Lee adds.

Around 200 Cook Strait giant wētā were brought to Zealandia between 2007 and 2010 - the first time they'd been on the mainland in over a hundred years. Before then they only lived on smaller islands.

"The idea was to establish a safe haven here in this place which has a predator exclusion fence," Shanahan says.

Zealandia's home to smaller wētā and other native species too.

And while the birds are known to leave their sanctuary nest, conservationists are celebrating this wētā's travels as a mark of success.

"Incredibly excited to see the Cook Strait giant wētā has spread from the safety of the sanctuary into the surrounding suburb of Wellington," Shanahan says.

Exactly how the big bugs got through the predator-free fenceline remains a mystery. There are a couple of theories.

"[It] climbed up the inside, came over the top and fell down. Another theory is that as a baby it was small enough to get through the mesh," Lee says.

Whatever the method, they've made a welcome escape.

"It gives us real hope this species can survive into the future," Shanahan says.

A future with even more room to roam.