There were records of the penguins at Warrnambool’s first fully manned lighthouse station which was built in SW Victoria in 1855. But my first contact with the story started with the tv programme Coast Australia, with Scotsman Neil Oliver.
In Middle Island, off the coast of Warrnambool, red foxes had been decimating small colonies of Fairy Penguins. Normally Middle Island was cut off from the mainland for most of the year, but when the sandbar to the island became bigger during some months of the year, red foxes could walk across at leisure. When a newspaper article exposed how the endangered penguins were being killed en masse in 2004, a local chicken farmer became very alarmed.
Allan Marsh, known locally as Swampy, had already bought a maremma dog to protect his chickens from the marauding red foxes. So then he got the idea of using dogs to protect the Fairy Penguins. In 2000 there had been hundreds alive and thriving; by the 2004-5 summer, only four penguins were left on the island. Dead penguin carcasses lay everywhere, chewed up by foxes. Extinction of the island colony was imminent.
Marsh believed that his faithful maremma dog Oddball could protect the few surviving penguins. Indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and Tuscany, the maremma is a breed of dog that protects livestock. These self reliant dogs have a solid, muscular build, thick white coat and large heads, and have been used for centuries by Italian shepherds to bond with the sheep and guard them from wolves. The Fairy Penguins are normally found in the ocean, but they breed on land and live in burrows dug out in the sand. So the maremma dogs would be perfect because they are light-footed and would not disturb the penguins nests.
Warrnambool City Council told the chicken farmer that dogs were not allowed on Middle Island, because the dogs would be more destructive than the foxes. So Swampy had to wait until someone new started working at the council before he could take the plan any further. Then it happened! Warrnambool conducted the world's first trial using a maremma to guard the dwindling penguin population, starting in 2006.
Oddball originally went to the island for three weeks but she became homesick and swam home. Then her maremma-aunt Missy was sent out there, but she also swam home. Swampy finally managed to get the authorities to see that they needed two dogs on the island, to prevent loneliness.
Maremmas clearly showed an exceptionally strong sense of territory. They focused on guarding their territory on the island and were simply tolerating the penguins. But when a fox tried to invade the dog’s territory, there was a great deal of barking, biting and not a few fox deaths.
Warrnambool City Council and Deakin University quickly formalised the Middle Island Maremma Project. Once every two weeks during the breeding season, a group of volunteers looked for the penguins on Middle Island to count them, in front of film crews from many countries. Middle Island's current maremma guards, Eudy and Tula, live on the Island for a week at a time and are famous everywhere.
The penguins are now thriving and are back up to a population of 250. The island seems to be fox-free. These successes not only triggered international media interest, but stirred the scientific community. Scientists from Deakin University’s Warrnambool campus have presented lectures on the project at Oxford University several times. And publication in a scientific journal will make the project story available to an even wider audience.
The maremma project won the 2010 Australian Government Coastcare Award. And tourism started to increase. When not on Middle Island, the dogs live at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool, so tourists can meet the maremmas there. Middle Island has been closed to the public since 2006, to protect burrows, penguins, penguin chicks and eggs from human trampling. But it will be possible to join small, guided tours in the southern summer (December-April) at low tide.
And soon international media outlets wrote or filmed the island and dogs. One film crew arrived in 2014 to film scenes for a cinematic production called Oddball which was released in 2015. In the film, Shane Jacobson was the actor starring as the chicken farmer and Oddball’s grandson starred as Oddball the dog.
Red fox carrying off a dead penguin.
While using maremma sheepdogs to guard an endangered species has not been common, some breeds of livestock guarding dogs have long been appreciated by environmentalists. Those dogs made it possible for livestock to coexist with predators such as wolves and coyotes, reducing their predation by at least 75%. Now there is a Wombat Rescue organisation in New South Wales that uses a maremma to help tend and protect rescued wombats.