Australia has a long history of losing its native wildlife at the hands – well, paws and teeth – of imported species. When European settlers arrived at the land down under in the 1800s, they brought lots of animals with them, such as cats and foxes. These imports rapidly bred and eventually killed off dozens of Australia’s native mammals, birds and other animals.
The demise of many native animals still occurs today. In October of 2004, a local newspaper reported that, in one episode, foxes had killed 180 penguins on Middle Island, off the coast of southern Australia. By 2005, the island’s population of little penguins had dwindled from over 800 down to less than 10.
Once foxes began decimating the populations of little flightless penguins along Australia’s southern coast, the birds retreated to the islands. Once the islands became accessible to foxes as a result of sandbars, the small birds had nowhere else to go.
Thankfully, today, their numbers are back up to three digits, thanks to the local chicken farmer, Swampy Marsh, and his hardy sheepdogs.
Marsh observed that, “The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins. They were desperate.”
The farmer had all too much experience with foxes coming onto his farm and eating his chickens. He then realized his sheepdogs were more effective at chasing away the foxes than his own shotgun. When Marsh learned about the plight of the little penguins, he offered a simple solution – use sheepdogs to protect the penguins by scaring off the foxes.
The sheepdogs known as Maremmas are incredibly self-reliant and can be left to defend a patch of land for long stretches of time. During the summer months, when foxes pose the most danger to Middle Island’s little penguins, the dogs stay on the island for several days in a row, watching over the birds from a raised perch. Since 2006, when the first Maremma was put to work, the island’s little penguin population has rebounded to 150, and not one has been killed by a fox.
Marsh and his dog, Oddball, became a local legend and their story became the basis of an Australian film, aptly titled “Oddball.” The movie is a box office success down under.
The strategy is now being tried elsewhere across the country in hopes of saving other small species with plights similar to that of the little penguins.
Australia is trying all sorts of methods to save native wildlife from predators. The government recently announced a plan to kill millions of feral cats using traps and poison. The cats have killed off some native species entirely and continue to prey on more than 100 protected and threatened species.