Big Dogs Save Little Penguins
For many centuries, it has been common practice to use dogs to manage flocks of other domestic species like sheep and cattle that are usually kept in herds. But use of dogs in conservation projects is a brand-new concept.This story tells the trials and tribulations behind the initial research that finally resulted in establishing modern programmes that have successfully regenerated of some of Australia's unique native species.
From the same family of Livestock Guardian breeds as the Pyrenean Mountain dog introduced here in our early days, the Maremma Sheepdog was chosen. Here the dogs' traditional function formed the basis of this ground-breaking conservation project.
The University Study
In 2006, Deacon University studied a population of Little Penguins on the 1.5ha Middle Island, in South West Victoria, separated by just 150 meters of tidal sands from a popular Warrnambool beach. Alarmingly, this study recorded that the Little Penguin population had dropped from 502 in year 2000 to less than 10 by 2005.
Little Penguin under Board walk
Middle Island was once home to thousands of indigenous sea birds as well as the fascinating Little Penguins. 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 unauthorised visitors, the Council constructed an expensive board walk. This did not solve the problem either.
The Concept of the Project
Middle Island Board-walk
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 beer in the pub 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. He was studying Environmental Science at that time and documented this idea 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. In 2006 the first Steering Committee which included 'Swampy' was set up and trialled under the direct guidance of the then Warrnambool Council Environmental Officer, Ian Fitzgibbon. This programme was supported by an enthusiastic band of volunteers, and still is today.
Trial and Error
With the reason for the decline in Little Penguin numbers already identified as fox predation, and the presence of Maremma Sheepdogs identified as the possible solution, simply placing the dogs on the Island was not as easy as was first thought. The Steering Committee made the following mistakes:
Firstly, they placed just one adult Maremma on Middle Island, expecting him to know what he was supposed to be do! His name was 'Oddball'. Owned by 'Swampy' and although he had already successfully guarded Swampy's chickens from predators, there were no chickens on Middle Island!
Oddball was chosen because he was reliable with people. However, this became his failing because, instead of living a life of isolation on Middle Island, 'Oddball' preferred the company of the people he could see on the mainland beach just 150 meters away. He kept escaping from the Island! Then they tried a bitch called 'Missy' on the island. She was not happy living alone either. The Steering Committee correctly assumed two dogs was the answer.
Viewing Beach from Board Walk
Secondly, they purchased 'Electra' and 'Neve', who were supposedly Maremmas. Then the Little Penguin colony began to increase. The presence of these two convinced the Warrnambool Council's steering Committee that this project had distinct possibilities of success.
Although 'Electra' and 'Neve' resembled Maremma in appearance, it was likely were not pure-bred because they lacked some behavioural traits typical of a Livestock Guardian Dog. For example, instead of the dogs protecting the Little Penguins, they not only played too roughly with them causing some damage, they ate the Little Penguins' eggs! This behaviour was due to the herding instinct, more typical of a Herding Sheepdog, rather than that of a Livestock Guardian Dog.
From these initial mistakes, the Steering Committee established some principles in the selection and management of the next pair.
Defining the Principles
Esta' and 'Eudy' on patrol
These principles concentrated on transferring the bonding instinct that has protected livestock for thousands of years, into protecting these wonderful Little Penguins. From the above trials, the unsuccessful attempts proved to the Steering Committee that they must:
- Purchase a pair of pure breed Maremma Sheepdogs that came from parents who had proven they retained the ancient instinct of Livestock Guardian Dogs.
- from a very young age, the pups need to bond with the Little Penguins, other sea birds and the island.
- Under supervision, run the pups with an older dog which knew what was required.
- Correct the pup immediately should any rough or atypical behaviour occur.
- Supervise the pups until they were reliably bonded with the Little Penguins.
The Concept takes Shape
'Esta' with 'Eudy' and 'Tula
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.
Meanwhile, David Williams had been taking his own Maremma 'Esta' to Middle Island, confident that she understood what was required. 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. These sessions were at different stages of the Little Penguins' breeding season and at different times of the day.
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.
Maremma with baby chicken
The Next Decade
Over the next decade, 'Eudy' and 'Tula' were trusted to patrol the island without supervision. They usually only spent a few days at a time on the island, with someone visiting daily to feed them and make certain all was well. The board-walk serves as a refuge where they were fed, had shelter and a spell from their charges. 'Eudy' and 'Tula' were given 'respite' every few days when they were taken to the mainland and given a larger area on which to relax with some chickens.
Today there is no fox predation on Middle Island. The Little Penguin population and other sea birds have now increased dramatically. The board-walk serves as an enclosed observation area for supervised public visits. As 'Eudy' and 'Tula' aged, they were retired and replaced.
Meanwhile, David Williams' next project was to work in nearby Portland, 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 great interest to bird watchers and tourists.
Eastern Barred Bandicoot
Other conservation projects have followed include saving the endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot from extinction. Maremma are now also commonly used throughout Australia to protect chickens and other domesticated animals and birds on farms from foxes and other predators.
I wish to thank David Williams for his pictures, 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 published 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