13 February 2016

Australia Uses Sheepdogs to Save Penguin Colony

Australians have put Maremma sheepdogs, typically guardians which protect sheep against attacks by wolves, to use protecting Little Penguins.

On a wee island near the coastal town of Warrnambool, the sheepdogs behind the Middle Island Maremma Project which began in 2006, have proven productive in guarding the smallest of the penguin species from would-be-predators, particularly foxes.

The dogs, which are white with floppy ears and weigh in at about 75 to 100 lbs, can be traced back thousands of years and have a reputation for guarding herd animals from wild predators and thieves but are also known for being gentle and devoted to humans and other animals in their posse. Unlike other herding dogs which nip and chase those in their care, Maremma dogs form social bonds with the animals they are protecting.

And they have done remarkably well in their duties to safeguard penguins. Little Penguins' population in Australia peaked at about 1,500 but was down to about 700 in the 1990s. In the following years, the population was subjected to havoc wrought by foxes who killed dozens of the birds, particularly in nocturnal sprees (in one bloodbath foxes killed 180 penguins) while humans trampled their fragile environment.

By about 2005 numbers of the penguins, once common along Australia's southern coast, were down to about 10. That changed when two men mused that territorial Maremma sheepdogs should be deployed.

A local farmer, known as Swampy Marsh, saw how the Maremma dogs had done well protecting his free-range chickens from becoming dinner for prey and suggested the canines help remedy the penguins' plight. But, he once bemoaned to reporters, “the powers that be wouldn't listen to me until it got down to six penguins.” With a green light from local authorities, they launched a short-term trial which was extended given it worked so well. 

By 2015, Little Penguin numbers had climbed back to triple digits.

Later, two puppies purchased by fundraising efforts were trained to bond with sheep and also to see if they could be put to work to protect bandicoots, a small marsupial not seen outside captivity since 2002. If successful, the trial could result in the creation of a Fighting Extinction Dog Squad, a specially trained squad of dogs that protect and help monitor a host of native wildlife.

The hope is the experiment down under will potentially offer a template for global conservation.

Log onto www.warrnamboolpenguins.com.au for more information.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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