Four-legged guardians for conservation | Global Ideas | DW | 19.07.2016
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Global Ideas

Four-legged guardians for conservation

Dogs and birds don't usually get along. Even docile puppies often turn into hellhounds when they get to chase a flock of the feathered creatures. Yet several sheepdogs have saved a penguin colony in Australia.

In southern Australia, a sturdy breed of sheepdog known as the Maremma sheepdog is hard at work guarding the little penguins of Middle Island.

So how did this unlikely animal kingdom alliance come about? In the mid-1990s, the beach town of Warrnambool faced a familiar foe: foxes had infiltrated Middle Island to devour little penguins, and within a decade's time the colony was on the brink of collapse.

"The crisis came to a head in 2005, when foxes killed 360 penguins over the course of two nights," said Robert Abbott, a representative of the #link: Island Maremma Project#.

The death toll kept rising, and by the following year the penguin population had all but perished. A colony that had once been home to 800 animals now consisted of less than 10.

Dogs + Penguins = Awesome

Photo: A group of penguins waddling across the beach during darkness

Without their canine bodyguards the penguins would be easy prey on land

Since then, the #link: colony# has rebounded. In 2013, its population cracked the 100 mark again - and has stayed above it ever since.

According to Abbott, much of the credit for its recovery is due to the inspiration of a chicken farmer named Allan "Swampy" Marsh. His idea was simple: deploy a sheepdog to stand guard.

The canine muscle came in the form of a territorial Maremma sheepdog named Ben, which Marsh used to protect his free-range chickens from foxes. Local officials agreed to put Ben to work on Middle Island, and his daughter Oddball soon followed.

"Ever since the dogs went onto the island, we've never lost a penguin to a fox," Abbott said.

Island Invaders

But this cute tale about a stalwart dog protecting helpless penguins from wily foxes has a serious background.

Australia has had a long history of invasive species decimating native wildlife. An estimated 24 species of birds, 4 frogs and 27 mammals are believed to have gone extinct since European settlers first arrived in the 18th century, when they brought their livestock - and predators - with them.

Early on, settlers introduced red foxes to Australia for the purpose of sport hunting. The nonnative foxes adapted to their environment, and began to devour native species. The flightless little penguins were easy prey.

On the Australian mainland, colonies of little penguins that were once large and raucous fell silent, as foxes (along with feral cats and wild dogs) took their toll.

Photo: Silhouette of an island in the sea

Middle Island off Warrnambool is just 200 meters across

As a result, most of Australia's remaining penguin colonies occupy craggy, hard-to-reach sections of coastline, along with the shorelines of nearby islands.

And as the example of Middle Island illustrates, they weren't always safe, even in their retreats. When sediment carried by shifting tidal patterns created a land bridge in the 1990s that connected the Australian mainland to the island at low tide, the foxes crossed over, following the penguins to the island.

Enter Maremma

Just like the foxes, the Maremma dogs are European imports. Once used to fend off wolves in the mountains of Italy, they were brought to Australia to protect free-range chickens and goats from predators. As a breed, they are born with an instinct to stake out a patch of territory and to claim it as their own.

"Most guardian dog breeds have been around for a long time, and they have traits that make them good protectors," said Christopher Johnson, a wildlife conservationist at the University of Tasmania.

"For example, they are patient and inoffensive to livestock - but active, noisy and even aggressive if they feel their livestock are threatened."

Dogs detect friend from foe through scent, and Maremma sheepdogs are no exception. According to Abbott, Maremma pups are introduced to penguins at an early age. As part of their training, "we get their scent up their noses," Abbott said.

In turn, the dogs bond with the penguins and come to recognize them as members of their pack - albeit short and stubby ones.

Next generation

Photo: A man walking two dogs on a leash though shallow water

After a five day shift on the island the dogs return to dry land for the weekend

During the breeding season, two adult Maremma dogs named Eudy and Tula spend five days per week patrolling Middle Island to ward off foxes. When they're off duty, the dogs live on a nearby farm.

But at nine years old, they're reaching retirement. So the town of Warrnambool has raised the funds to acquire and train two more Maremma pups.

The use of guardian dogs to protect livestock is also seen by conservationists as a more effective and humane way to reduce conflict between wildlife and livestock owners - who typically have relied on poison and traps to rid themselves of nuisance animals.

"Killing often doesn't work very well, because the predators can so quickly recover their numbers, either by breeding up or by migrating from elsewhere," Johnson told DW.

"Fencing can work, but it is expensive and labor-intensive," Johnson continued. This is also limited in Australia, because the farms are very big. "Building, and then maintaining a predator-proof fence around a property is often impractical."

Dogs will be dogs

Abbott cautions that the use of Maremma dogs to protect vulnerable species, however, isn't a silver bullet. After all, dogs will be dogs.

From time to time, they do wander off Middle Island to pursue foxes, leaving the penguins open to attack and placing the dogs at the risk of being injured by motorists.

But the results have been so positive that the lessons learned on Middle Island are also being applied elsewhere.

Zoos Victoria, for example, is running a pilot program that pairs Maremma dogs with bandicoots, a tiny rodent-like marsupial at risk of extinction in Australia.

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