Big Dogs Save Little Penguins
This story describes a ground-breaking programme that uses Maremma Sheepdogs to keep wildlife safe from predators. Measured by the recovery of numbers of the sea birds in two separate colonies, this programme is not only a remarkable success, it is testament to the worth of pure breed dogs for modern conservation projects.
Today, laws banning domestic dogs and cats from National Parks and Sanctuaries are almost universally regarded as essential for the safety of wildlife. This story highlights a managed reversal of this current thinking. Here the traditional use of Livestock Guardian Dogs has been adapted to form an integral part of this ground-breaking conservation project.
The Maremma is one of several breeds of Livestock Guardian Dogs. For centuries these dogs have lived amongst flocks of sheep, bonding with them and acting instinctively where necessary to save them from predators. These instinctive traits have been developed over more than two thousand years of selective breeding. Livestock Guardian Dogs are not trained like conventional dogs. From 8 weeks of age, they are brought up among lambs or others requiring protection. Their natural instinct is to protect the 'family' with which they have been bonded. Since they mature into dogs of considerable size they provide an effective deterrent to predators.
Setting the Scene
Little Penguin under Boardwalk
This story begins with local concerns about a Little Penguin colony situated on Middle Island near Warrnambool, a picturesque region in South West Victoria. Separated by just 150 meters of tidal sands from a popular Warrnambool beach, the 1.5ha Middle Island was once home to thousands of indigenous sea birds including fascinating Little Penguins. But this population was declining rapidly. At first Warrnambool City Council identified the problem as fox predation. Although the Council tried trapping, shooting and even fumigating the foxes in their dens, these sly predators continued their rampage.
Aware that the burrows of the Little Penguins were also being trampled by unauthorized visitors, the Council constructed an expensive boardwalk. This did not solve the problem either. Alarmingly, by the 2005-2006 breeding season, the Middle Island Little Penguin population had decreased to less than 10.
Middle Island Boardwalk
Just outside Warrnambool, chicken farmer Alan Marsh (affectionately known as 'Swampy') was using Maremma Sheepdogs to protect his chickens against foxes that were prevalent in the district. In a chance conversation over a drink with an astute Environmental Science student David Williams, 'Swampy' jokingly said:
'What they need out there are Maremma Sheepdogs'.
David took the comment seriously and developed the idea, documenting it in his University Assignments. His proposals were taken to State and Local Authorities, resulting in the first conservation programme of its type anywhere in the world. Under the direct guidance of Warrnambool Council Environmental Officer Ian Fitzgibbon, the first Steering Committee which included 'Swampy' was set up and trialled, beginning in 2006. This programme has always been supported by an enthusiastic band of volunteers and still is today.
The first Maremma to be placed on Middle Island was 'Oddball', owned by 'Swampy'. She was chosen because she was reliable with people. However, this became her failing because instead of living a life of isolation on Middle Island, 'Oddball' preferred the company of the people she could see on the mainland beach just 150 meters away. Then an older bitch called 'Missy' was put out on the island. She was not happy living alone there either. However, the presence of these two initial dogs proved that foxes saw the presence of a large dog as a threat, and abandoned Middle Island. The Little Penguin colony began to increase. This convinced the Warrnambool Council that this project had distinct possibilities of success.
The Learning Experience
Viewing Beach from Boardwalk
Realizing that one dog was not happy to live alone on the island, the following year two Maremma puppies, 'Electra' and 'Neve' were purchased especially for the project. In hindsight, several mistakes were made in the management of these two. Firstly they were not correctly 'bonded' with the Island and its Little Penguin colony from a very young age. Secondly, although they resembled Maremma in appearance, it was likely they were not pure-breed dogs because they lacked some behavioural traits typical of a Livestock Guardian Dog. Instead of the dogs protecting the Little Penguins, they played too roughly with them causing some damage. Was this behaviour normal for a Maremma? Was this rough play due to the herding instinct more typical of a Herding Sheepdog cross? Or was it purely a management problem?
After much soul searching, it was decided to begin again with new pair of pure-breed Maremma puppies and bond them from a very young age with the Little Penguins, the other sea birds and the island itself. It was realized that everybody involved with the dogs must be ready to correct any rough play that might occur while the pups were still immature - quite an ask for a local Council and volunteers! However, they all agreed that they must consistently teach any new pups right from the beginning that Little Penguins were their charges are not their toys! Until this lesson was learned, the pups would have to be supervised.
'Esta' and 'Eudy' on patrol
Realizing this may take a couple of years or even more, everybody was confident to go ahead with new pups. After all, this project was a world first! So this band of passionate conservationists had no precedent to follow about how to transfer a bonding instinct that has protected livestock for thousands of years, into protecting these wonderful Little Penguins.
Meanwhile, David Williams had been taking his own Maremma 'Esta' to Middle Island, confident that she understood what was required. Then two Maremma Sheepdog pups whose background had been thoroughly researched were purchased from a reputable breeder. These were 'Eudy' and 'Tula', their names coming from the technical name for Little Penguins, Eudyptula minor. From the age of 8 weeks, 'Eudy' and 'Tula' were housed with chickens and taken to Middle Island daily. This was so that the pups would eventually regard it their territory, together with the Little Penguins and other sea birds that lived there.
At first David went out to the island with the two pups and Esta. Their visits to Middle Island consisted of regular walks around its perimeter, with Esta helping to teach the pups what was expected of them. For several months, these three Maremmas were taken to Middle Island for increasing periods at different stages of the Little Penguins' breeding season and at different times of the day.
Respite for 'Eudy' and 'Tula'
Gradually, David and Esta reduced their time so the pups were alone on the island for increasing periods. After that, various members of the Warrnambool Council Environment Team spent time both with the dogs on the island and monitoring them from afar. As 'Eudy' and 'Tula' matured, they were happy to stay alone, even overnight.
Now they spend a few days at a time on the island. But of course every day someone comes to feed them and make certain all is well. The boardwalk serves as a refuge where they are fed, have shelter and can have a spell from their charges. Now 'Eudy' and 'Tula' can be trusted to patrol the island without supervision. However, they are given 'respite' every few days when they are taken to the mainland and given a larger area on which to relax and roam with some chickens.
Today there is no fox predation on Middle Island. Unauthorized human presence has also decreased. But the most pleasing aspect of all is that the Little Penguin population over the last five breeding seasons since the Maremma's were first introduced, has increased from less than 10 to over 180.
Meanwhile, David Williams is presently employed in nearby Portland, working with two other Maremmas, Elma and Reamma to protect Australia's only mainland breeding colony of Australasian Gannets. Although these birds are not endangered, they are beautiful birds producing one quaint downy white chick each year. These develop a mottled appearance as juveniles before returning to the mostly white plumage of the adult. Their preservation on mainland Australia rather than on inaccessible islands is of interest to bird watchers and tourists.
These two Maremmas also had to be taught some lessons. They found Australasian Gannet eggs delicious to eat. However, an old fashioned farmers' trick of filling a couple of eggs with pepper soon taught these two a necessary lesson! Drawing on the experience of the Little Penguin colony, the dogs were taught from a very young age that the area including the birds, the chicks, the eggs and the rocks on which the colony nested was their home and territory.
It is interesting to note that Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were the first Livestock Guardian Dogs to be brought into Australia. They accompanied sheep to Portland in 1843 to protect their charges from dingoes and human thieves in this fledgling country. Co-incidentally in the same place in Australia where they landed almost two centuries ago, these wonderful dogs' role is still the same. But our thinking has changed. Let's hope that this ground breaking success story paves the way for similar conservation programmes to be conducted on rare species throughout the world.
I wish to thank David Williams for the last 5 pictures on this page and for his advice and input into this story. I also wish to thank members of the Warrnambool City Council and volunteers from the Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group for their contributions.
The editing of material sourced from this article was published and acknowledged by
- the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria in their magazine 'Land for Wildlife' Newsletter of the Land for Wildlife Scheme Volume 9 Number 1 2012 Publication Number 03-20-0400-2 Page 10 under the title 'Biological Barriers: Using Maremma Sheepdogs to Protect Little Penguins'
- Birdlife Australia ' In Dog We Trust' by John Peter pubished by Australian Birdlife March 2012 Pages 36, 37 and 39
References and Further Reading
 Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27BC) from his book "Rerum Rusticarum" (On Agriculture) translated by William Davis Hooper and Harrison Boyd Ash and published by William Heinemann, London and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1934
 van Bommel, L (2010) "Guardian Dogs: Best Practice Manual for the use of Guardian Dogs" Invasive Animals CRC, Canberra. (online) Page 23
 Richard Crago President, Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Victoria Inc