Sheepguards have been guarding Little Penguins on Australia’s Middle Island since 2006, but a new report published Sunday by The New Zealand Herald reporter Billy Adams spotlighted the heartening recovery of a once-doomed population of the tiny flightless birds also known as Little Blue Penguins or Fairy Penguins.
According to the Australian government’s official webpage on the Middle Island Maremma Project, the population had crashed from 600 in 1999 to fewer than 10 in 2005. The culprit was the invasive red fox, which introduced itself to the island home of the defenseless penguins by swimming across at low tide.
With the population almost gone and nothing much left to lose, Middle Island was closed to the public in 2006. In addition, the specially trained Maremma Guardian sheepdogs were trained to protect what penguins remained.
The New Zealand Herald report said that the experiment has been a success. In seven years, not one penguin has been killed by a fox — and the recovering population now stands at 200 birds. The Maremma Guardian sheepdogs have also successfully protected Australasian Gannets at Point Danger, which is also in Australia.
Little Penguins are found only in New Zealand and Australia, which explains New Zealand’s keen interest in the Australian experiment.
But the trial didn’t go without a hitch. The first set of older sheepdogs didn’t like country living. They swam back to the mainland.
A younger set of dogs was too playful. A few penguins reportedly went into shock and died when they tried to play with the flightless birds.
However, the current set of sheepdogs have socialized with penguins from the time they were eight-week-old puppies, and they seem to have a deep understanding of their charges. That makes sense, because this breed is traditionally introduced to sheep at around seven or eight weeks old to create the strongest bond between the guardian and the guarded.
Maremma sheepdogs are an Italian breed, originally meant to protect livestock from wolves. The powerful but protective variety was developed hundreds of years ago, with some historians dating them back to at least the 14th century.
Would you have thought of the idea of having sheepdogs guard penguins?
[little penguin also known as little blue or fairy penguin photo by J.J. Harrison via Wikimedia and Creative Commons]
[sheepdogs guarding penguins photo by Middle Island Maremma Project]