Middle Island just off the coast of Warrnambool in South West Victoria has been the home of Little Penguins for decades. The island provides a safe haven free from predators for these adorable flightless birds to nest. At one point, 600 penguins called it home.
Recently, foxes (an introduced species) discovered they could reach the island during low tide and penguin numbers started to plummet. Within a couple of years, only four Little Penguins were left. The foxes have either killed or scared the penguins away and the authorities were struggling to come up with a solution.
Then a chicken farmer named Allan Marsh aka Swampy suggested a ‘ludicrous’ idea, to put a Maremma on Middle Island. Swampy experienced the same problems as the penguins, losing much of his prized chickens to foxes on his farm. But after he got a Maremma called Oddball, no lives were lost.
The council took a lot of convincing, Middle Island is protected and no dogs are allowed. Dogs are known to upset the ecological balance, they eat eggs and chicks, ruin nesting sites and prevent birds from returning to their young. It’s understandable why the council was so hesitant with Swampy’s suggestion but they had no other option and gave it a shot.
And it worked! In 2006, Oddball was made penguin protector of Middle Island. She lived there during the month of November under supervision as a test run. Everyone was nervous about how the Penguins were going to react to Oddball, would the presence of a dog drive them away? The answer is no, they were unfazed by Oddball and it showed in nesting numbers. That year 70 Little Penguins lived on the island and has slowly grown to 130 today. Research student Amanda Peucker observed “When the dog was on the island, we had no fox prints at all” but returned when Oddball left.
So the Maremma passed the test and soon, two puppies were trained to be the penguin protectors. The current pair are sisters Eudy and Tula. They patrol the island for 5 months of the year during the breeding and molting season.
Maremmas are successfully employed elsewhere around Australia to guard endangered wildlife in sensitive habitats vulnerable to feral predation. And it’s all thanks to Oddball, whom at 15 years of age is happily retired at Swamp’s farm. Her story has been turned into a movie – Oddball showing in cinemas now.