28 March 2012

Sheepdog guards penguins

By
Little penguins on Middle Island have a bodyguard of maremma sheepdogs.
Maremma sheepdog, guardian of livestock and now penguins too.

Maremma sheepdog, guardian of livestock and now penguins too. Credit: That Angela / EveryStockPhoto

Little penguin, the smallest species of penguin, found in Australia and New Zealand. Also known as the fairy penguin.

Little penguin, the smallest species of penguin, found in Australia and New Zealand. Also known as the fairy penguin. Credit: Ken and Nyetta / EveryStockPhoto

Little penguins, the smallest species of penguin, found in Australia and New Zealand. Also known as fairy penguins.

Little penguins, the smallest species of penguin, found in Australia and New Zealand. Also known as fairy penguins. Credit: Ken and Nyetta / EveryStockPhoto

~ Tiffany Hoy

Little penguins on Warrnambool’s Middle Island were under attack from foxes and wild dogs – so maremma sheepdogs stepped in as bodyguards.

The penguin colony was down from over 600 to about 10 living birds over the period of 2000 to 2005. Since the introduction of the world-first Middle Island Maremma Project in 2006, numbers are back up to more than 100 pairs of happy feet.

Middle Island, off the south coast of Australia, is only about 4 acres all up, and uninhabited – except for the penguins, who dive for fish and squid in the Southern Ocean. The penguins have been raising chicks in sandy burrows for decades, but at low tide the island connects to the mainland and becomes a highway for introduced predators like the European red fox. On one particularly bloody night foxes killed 100 penguins. This wasn’t helped by human visitors to Middle Island, who trod on burrows, crushing eggs and chicks (the island is now inaccessible to the public).

The idea to use maremma sheepdogs to guard the penguins came from Dave Williams, a volunteer of the local Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group and environmental science student. Williams had watched maremma guard dogs protect chickens from foxes at a free-range farm owned by Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh. He thought: if it works for chickens, why not penguins?

Maremmas sheepdogs are known to bond with the animals they protect. They have been used in Italy for centuries to protect sheep from wolves, bears and thieves. Unlike herding breeds that nip and chase, maremma sheepdogs are calm around livestock, integrating with the herd and forming social bonds. Bonding happens in a critical time of socialisation, when puppies learn to identify livestock as members of their pack.

Oddball, an experienced chicken guard, was chosen as the first maremma sheepdog on Middle Island. Things went well at first, but after three weeks she ran away, back home to Marsh’s farm. Another two maremma sheepdogs, Electra and Ne’ve, spent six months as puppies bonding with chickens, with minimal human contact, before they were set to guard the penguins.

Unfortunately some 10 penguins were found dead from internal bleeding – most likely killed in play by Electra and Ne’ve. Williams said this was common puppy behavior and part of the learning process, but the two were replaced by new pups Eudy and Tula. This time an experienced maremma guardian, Esta, was on hand to show them the ropes. Their training involved gradual exposure to the penguins at different times of day, for longer and longer periods.

An electric fence with solar-powered perimeter wire was put in place to keep the dogs from running off at low tide. When they’re not guarding penguins in the summer, Eudy and Tula hang out with chickens.

The program won the National Landcare Award in 2010, and similar projects are being used to protect other vulnerable species. Just down the coast at Portland, maremma sheepdogs are protecting the local Gannet population.

More info (wiki): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maremma_Sheepdog

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