Middle Island, off Victoria State in southern Australia, is home to over 200 penguins, and they all owe their lives to a group of Maremma sheepdogs.
According to the New York Times, foxes imported to Australia in the 19th century for sport hunting once massacred the island’s resident little penguins, driving their numbers down from 1,500 birds to to only six.
The nearby city of Warrnambool tried to control the number of predators, but to no avail. It looked like the local colony of the world’s smallest penguin species was just one more fox attack from being wiped out, when a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh stepped in.
Years earlier, Swampy, whose real name is Allan Marsh, had struggled to protect his free-range poultry from foxes with a rifle, before finally breaking down and picking up a Maremma sheepdog puppy named Ben.
Ben, drawing on his breed’s territorial instincts and tireless work ethic, effectively warded off countless predators from his new flock.
As it worked for chooks, the Australian term for chickens, Marsh saw no reason it couldn’t also work for penguins, or “chooks in dinner suits,” as he calls them. A university student who worked on Marsh’s farm, David Williams, submitted a former proposal to the state environmental agency, where it was incessantly debated before finally being put into action with Ben’s daughter, Oddball, in 2006.
The Maremma sheepdog plan was only granted on a trial basis, but it didn’t take long to see how perfect Oddball was for the local penguin colony. On the sheepdog’s watch, not a single penguin was lost, and the population on Middle Island has now rebounded to about 205 birds and counting.
Oddball’s story even inspired a movie, which was released last September.
Today, Oddball enjoys a well-earned retirement lounging under Marsh’s house, but her successors, Eudy and Tula, can still be seen patrolling the walkways above the penguin’s beaches, ever vigilant to the intrusion of predators.
But Eudy and Tula are 8 years old, and their own retirement is imminent. Luckily, an online fundraising drive recently collected enough to train the next generation of penguin guardians, so Middle Island’s seabirds are still safe for the foreseeable future.
Thanks to the movie about Oddball and several articles about the sheepdogs’ success, similar strategies are being considered elsewhere in Australia, where native wildlife has been driven to near extinction by foxes, cats, and other predators. Efforts to save the threatened species, such as the government’s announcement it would cull millions of feral cats, have been met with anger from animal rights advocates as well as skepticism to their supposed effectiveness.
Sheepdogs, while perhaps not a universal fix to Australia’s wildlife woes, offer a more agreeable strategy for countering the damage done by predators. Werribbee Open Range Zoo near Melbourne is already putting its own sheepdog plan into place to protect bandicoots, the dogs being trained by Marsh’s former employee, David Williams.
If the dogs prove as effective as they did on Middle Island, they could soon become part of Australia’s overall conservation strategy. “This trial draws on the success of the Middle Island project,” said Werribee communications manager Kimberly Polkinghorne about the zoo’s sheepdog plan. “We are very excited about its potential to not just help bandicoots, but other threatened species as well.”