Guard dogs: Fur protects feathers

By Oryana Angel 17 June 2009
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Italian sheepdogs are keeping foxes away from a Victorian penguin colony.

At the highest point on Middle Island, two white-haired dogs – saviours of the island’s vulnerable colony of little penguins – have fallen asleep at their post. Luckily, even in sleep they’re able to achieve what many believed impossible.

The Italian guard dogs, or maremmas, are the bark and bite of a trial that began in June 2007 on the 1.5 ha island, 75 m off the coast of Warrnambool, Victoria, to save a colony of little penguins on the brink of extinction.

Regular assaults by foxes and stray dogs swimming across the tidal channel had almost wiped out the once-thriving colony, with numbers dropping from around 600 penguins and 350 burrows in the year 2000 to less than 10 penguins and no breeding burrows in 2005. In 2006 the Warrnambool City Council, which manages the island, accepted a radical idea from a resident free-range-chook farmer.

Guard dogs protecting flocks

Since 1997, Allan “Swampy” Marsh has used five maremmas to protect his 5000 chickens and 3000 chicks from foxes on his farms in Warrnambool and nearby Purnim. He took his cue from Italy, where for centuries the dogs have been used to protect sheep from wolves and other predators. Swampy envisioned them doing a similar job for the penguins on Middle Island. “I was staggered that no one else had actually thought of it yet,” he says. “It’s so bleedin’ obvious.”

One of Swampy’s maremmas, Oddball, was sent out to the island in November 2006 for an initial four-week trial, and females Electra and Néve followed in June 2007. Since they’ve been on the island, no penguins have been lost to predation. According to Swampy, the biggest deterrent for foxes is simply the presence of a maremma, who quickly marks the area as its own territory.

Many conservationists, such as AG Society-sponsored geneticist Amanda Peucker, are buoyed by the results. Amanda, who’s been monitoring the penguin breeding during the maremma project, reports that night-arrival counts – when the penguins return to the island after spending the day foraging for food at sea – have increased to between 50 and 70. She’s also counted nine breeding burrows. She predicts it will take about six or seven years to get the colony back to full capacity. “Numbers will slowly increase as long as the foxes are kept off,” she says.

Source: Australian Geographic Apr – Jun 2008