Tue, Nov 10, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Australia deploys sheepdogs to protect penguins

Chicken farmer Swampy Marsh began using a Maremma sheepdog to protect his flocks and reasoned they would also work well against foxes targeting Middle Island’s penguins. Now zoos are trying to replicate the program to protect other species

By Austin Ramzy  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Yusha

“Massacred” read the banner headline in the local newspaper — just the single word, as if describing an act of war. Below it was a photograph of dead penguins and other birds, the latest casualties in Australia’s long history of imported species decimating its native wildlife.

Foxes killed 180 penguins in that particular episode, in October 2004, but the toll on Middle Island, Victoria, Australia, kept rising. By 2005, the small island’s penguin population, which had once numbered 800, was below 10.

Today, their numbers are back in the triple digits and much of the credit has gone to a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh and his strong-willed sheepdogs.

“The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins,” said Marsh, whose long-unused birth name is Allan.

“They were desperate,” he said.

The farmer’s simple solution — deploy a particularly territorial breed of sheepdog to scare the foxes away — became local legend and, in September, the subject of an Australian film, Oddball, which fictionalized the story and made a lovable hero of one of the dogs. The strategy is now being tried elsewhere in Victoria, in hopes of protecting other indigenous species from nonnative predators.

Dozens of Australian mammal species have gone extinct since European settlers began arriving in the late 18th century, bringing cats, foxes and other predators new to the ecosystem.

A recently announced plan to cull millions of feral cats, which the government says prey on more than 100 of its threatened species, drew new attention to the problem, while infuriating some celebrity advocates of animal rights.

Little penguins, the smallest penguin species, were once common along Australia’s southern coast. However, when red foxes were imported for sport hunting in the 19th century, they found the tiny, flightless birds to be easy prey. So did cats and dogs. The penguins’ colonies on the mainland began disappearing, which is why most are now found on islands.

Middle Island, near the city of Warrnambool in Victoria, was home to a deafening population of the birds until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tidal patterns and increasing sedimentation began to make the small, uninhabited island accessible from shore. Foxes made their way there and the birds offered little resistance.

Marsh, who lives in Warrnambool, said he knew how to reverse that trend as soon as he heard about it. A farmer of free-range chickens, he had spent many long nights with a rifle trying to keep foxes away from his chickens.

It was in the middle of one of those nights that a better solution came to him.

“It was 3 o’clock in the morning and the neighbors had a damn dog, you could hear it barking,” he said.

“I was a bit slow off the mark. It took a few nights for me to realize it was barking at what I was trying to shoot,” he said.

Soon he had acquired his own Maremma sheepdog puppy. Named for the region northwest of Rome where they originated, Maremma were bred to protect and live among livestock. They develop a keen sense of territory and are vigilant against intruders, though amiable toward familiar people and animals.

The farm’s first Maremma, Ben, took quickly to his new task, scaring one of the intruders away from the farm and into a road.

“It got squashed,” Marsh said. “It was fox pizza.”

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