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How a maremma sheepdog saved a penguin colony

When the penguin population on an Australian island fell to just 10 birds, a radical idea to use a maremma sheepdog to guard the colony was introduced and has proven to be highly successful

maremma oddball film extra

The video above is by ABC TV Science

The population of penguins living on a tiny island off the coast of Australia has been saved after a maremma sheepdog was used to guard the colony.

In five years penguin numbers plummeted from nearly 1,000 birds to just 10. Since the introduction of the sheepdog a decage ago, there are almost 200 of them.

The story will soon reach the silver screen after being turned into a film called Oddball, named after the maremma sheepdog that inspired the project.

The penguins on Middle Island were vulnerable because the island becomes connected to the mainland at low tide and they fell prey to attacks, particularly from foxes and wild dogs. In one night 100 penguins were killed. There was a human risk to the penguins too: tourists would visit the island and tread on eggs and chicks.

maremma oddball film extra

The main cast: the two dogs filmed for Oddball

David Williams, an environmental student, had heard of a maremma sheepdog called Oddball protecting chickens from foxes on a free range farm and wrote an essay about the plausibility of the the idea to introduce the dogs to Middle Island. He was supported by his father, who was a wildlife officer with the local council.

After getting the council on side, Oddball became the first sheepdog to guard Middle Island.

“When we all sat out there at night waiting for the penguins to come up on the island we were all shaking in our boots wondering how it would go really, because that was the big unknown,” Williams said.

“A couple of penguins came up and saw the dog and just snick back down again but then one confident one just strolled straight up and old Oddball went to give it a sneaky sniff on the backside and the penguin gave it a squawk and went for her nose.

“Oddie popped to the side and the penguine continued on, so it was really quite uneventful, I guess.”

Oddball stayed on the island until replacements were found and trained.

Two puppies were later introduced to the colony. They spent six months bonding with the penguins with minimal human intervention. This proved to be a mistake: ten penguins died of internal breeding, most likely because the puppies were playing with them.

Two new puppies were brought to the island and this time, an experienced maremma sheepdog was included to show them the ropes. The puppies were gradually exposed to the birds until they could safely be left to guard them. An electric fence was installed to stop them running home like Oddball had previously done.

Since the introduction of the dogs there has been a steady increase in the population of penguins on Middle Island. There are now almost 200 birds thriving.