Maremma Sheepdogs keep watch over Little Penguins

On Guard
By Debbie Lustig, July 2011, Updated June 2018
Big dogs keep watch over small penguins Photo by Dave Williams

These big dogs keep watch over small penguins Photo by Dave Williams

Chickens’ best friend Maremma Dogs - Photo by Linda van Bommel

Chickens’ best friend - Photo by Linda van Bommel

Big dogs keep watch over small penguins

Big dogs keep watch over small penguins

Dogs and birds are not always good companions. Dogs and wild seabirds? You must be joking! Whose dog hasn’t bounded around at the beach, sending up flurries of panicked gulls? However, in Australia, a dog/bird experiment with potentially global significance for conservation is taking place. On a tiny island near the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool, Maremma Sheepdogs (livestock guardian dogs) are hard at work protecting Little Penguins, the smallest of the penguin species. And not only are the birds thriving and breeding, predation losses from foxes — their chief killers — have ceased.

Maremmas have been traced back 2,000 years to the Italian region of Abruzzo, where they defended herd animals from thieves and wild predators, notably wolves. Prized for their protective skills, they were successfully introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s and later, Canada, South Africa and South America. Australia first imported them in 1982.

With their floppy ears, shaggy, white coats and placid demeanor, Maremmas look unthreatening and act calmly around sheep, goats and poultry. Unlike herding breeds that nip and chase, Maremmas do not confront livestock but integrate with them, forming social bonds.

Some of this is heredity; the dogs are bred to be docile. They also bond to the animals they’re to look after so they identify them as members of their pack. This bonding takes place through the critical period of socialization — eight to 16 weeks — until the dogs are about 12 months old. During this time, they are monitored closely for harmful play behavior. The dogs scent-mark their territory, indicating their boundaries to potential predators, and disrupt hunters by vigorous barking. They defend rather than act as aggressors.


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As Sydney, Australia, Maremma breeder Cecilia McDonald says, “The dogs work by instinct. But they need to be introduced to the stock they’re looking after so they can differentiate the predators from what is to be protected.”

In 2005, the Little Penguins of Middle Island were in desperate need of protection. One of the world’s most loved animals, this penguin species lives only in New Zealand and southern Australia. With their cute waddle and fascinating life cycle, they’re incredibly popular: the colony at Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, attracts a halfmillion visitors annually.

Middle Island, just beyond the Warrnambool breakwater in Stingray Bay, is a very different place. Uninhabited, forbiddingly steepsided and only 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres), its south face backs onto the wild Southern Ocean, into which the penguins dive up to 60 meters (roughly 197 feet) for fish and squid. Little Penguins had raised chicks in burrows near the island’s sandy summit for decades, the colony peaking at around 1,500 individuals. In the 1990s, when volunteers began record keeping, 700 penguins lived there.

At low tide, when the channel separating it from land is less than six inches deep, Middle Island becomes accessible to an introduced species, the European red fox, with disastrous consequences. For several years, the foxes wreaked havoc, killing dozens of penguins in unpredictable, nocturnal sprees. At the same time, human use of the fragile island increased, and burrows were trampled, crushing penguin eggs and chicks. In response, the Warrnambool City Council tried various predator-control methods (which failed) and built a 280-meter (919-foot) boardwalk to keep people off the rookery area. Even so, from 2000 to 2005, penguin numbers plummeted to fewer than 10. The colony was at the point of no return.

Enter Dave Williams. The environmental science student was working part-time on an organic egg farm, where Allan Marsh, his employer, used Maremmas for fox control. Hearing of the penguin massacres, Marsh made a perceptive remark: “All they need is a couple of [Maremma] dogs on that island.”

Williams agreed. He approached the Warrnambool City Council in 2005, asking to test the idea. After lengthy discussion, the council decided to give the dogs a four-week trial. Oddball, an experienced chicken guardian, was the first chosen for penguin duty. Six years — and six dogs — later, the experiment continues.

Initially, Williams camped on the island and supervised Oddball to determine her level of affinity with the seabirds. Things went so well that after a week, he left the dog alone at night to do her work.

“There were chicks in burrows already,” he explains. “We needed to know how they’d interact. Would the penguins accept the dog? Some birds were bolder than others. While some walked straight past the dog, others waited until the dog moved away before coming out of the sea.”

With only two breeding pairs, it was easy to gauge the success of the experiment. Chick weights were monitored to determine how the dogs affected the penguins. “If the chicks were healthy and gaining weight, that showed the parents were coming back to feed them. Weights showed they were progressing normally.”

Williams visited once a day to bring food and water for Oddball and to check on her health. Oddball got along with the penguins, but after three weeks, she ran away — back to Marsh’s farm. Another experienced chickenguardian dog, Missy, replaced her, but it wasn’t long before she also left the island for her farm home. By the time the trial ended after four weeks, the penguin chicks had fledged (grown up) and no penguins had died from fox predation. Another trial was planned for the following year.

In anticipation, puppies Electra and Neve were acquired at eight weeks of age and spent six months bonding to chickens at Marsh’s farm. Human contact was minimized and the young dogs settled in well. Williams, now a council employee, brought his dog Esta to demonstrate her calm demeanor around the penguins, and he was able to reduce the time he spent with the dogs. Then, disaster struck.

Some 10 penguins were found dead from internal bleeding. Almost certainly, they were killed in play by Electra and Neve. “It’s common with juvenile Maremmas,” says Williams. “With a sheep or a goat, the dog doesn’t really hurt the animal. When it’s a onekilogram penguin, they can’t stand up to that sort of puppy stuff.” Under public pressure, the council relieved them of their duties and Williams’ dog Esta took over patrols.

These problems were part of the learning process. As Williams reflects, “No one had done anything vaguely like it before. It’s an evolving project. We were constantly having discussions about how we could do things better.”

The fol lowing year, two new pups — dubbed Eudy and Tula (after the penguin species’ Latin name, Eudyptula minor) — joined the guarding effort. They’re now almost two years old and proving their worth. As with the first group of dogs, no penguins have been lost to fox attacks on their watch. Middle Island’s colony of Little Penguins now numbers 205.

Little Penguins have a sharply defined routine. In summer, the breeding season, they spend their days at sea, hunting fish. Returning at sunset to feed their chicks, they noisily socialize until dawn the next day. After breeding, they go into a molt for three weeks, replacing all their feathers. Particularly vulnerable at this time, they can starve as they cannot swim to hunt for food. In winter, they may stay at sea several days before building nests prior to mating in the early spring, when the cycle starts again.

Teaching a dog to guard birds who are not there all day — or all week — was always going to be hard. And as Oddball and Missy demonstrated, teaching a dog to stay on an island when she can trot off it at low tide proved even harder. The dogs’ training involved gradual exposure to the penguins at different times of day, for longer and longer periods. Esta, who was trustworthy with the birds, guided Eudy and Tula’s interactions.

“Esta’s reaction to the penguins showed the puppies that they were not to be feared. There are Short-tailed Shearwaters breeding out there too, so we exposed the puppies to all those phases and the different seasons. They got a picture of what’s normal on the island,” Williams says.

Dave Williams left Warrnambool for a wildlife officer job in nearby Portland, where he supervises another Maremma program for guarding Australasian Gannets, a large seabird. His successor is Paul Hartrick, who now heads a three-person team with responsibility for the Middle Island Maremmas.

The dogs aren’t obedience trained. For one thing, according to Williams, “the more obedient they are, the less they think for themselves.” This independence is vital, as the dogs are alone for long periods. For another, obedience could be harmful. Says Hartrick, “[Unfortunately] people are going over there. The last thing we want is for the dogs to respond to ‘sit,’ ‘stay’ or ‘come’ — to people trying to get them to come off the island. If they show undesirable behaviors, we use loud, abrupt vocal noises. It distracts them and they switch off from what they were thinking about.”

Another problem was evident from the start: Eudy and Tula occasionally left the island, possibly chasing foxes. An electric fence with solar-powered perimeter wire is now in place, and the dogs wear collars that emit warning beeps.

During the summer months, Eudy and Tula have two days off per week, which they spend at a bush block (a plot of undeveloped land covered with native vegetation) stocked with chickens. They’ve been there full-time since the end of summer and will go back to work on the island when penguin breeding commences. In the future, “the girls” will work year-round, and after six to eight years of guardian duty, will then help train their replacements. Hartrick believes the project could have benefits for other animals as well. “Dogs like this can be used for other native fauna that could use a helping hand.”

When I met Hartrick in February 2011, we visited Stingray Bay, from which Middle Island rises, sheer, stark and rocky. The tide was low and we took off our shoes and sloshed across the shallow channel. Together, we ascended the access stairway. Aware of a presence above us, I looked up: there were Eudy and Tula, doing their job, not letting me out of their sight.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011

Photographs by Dave Williams

Debbie Lustig is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is a volunteer guide at a local penguin colony and enjoys training Timmy, her Corgi/Jack Russell cross.

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