An Australian farmer’s simple solution to the killing off of a little penguin population became local legend and the subject of a popular film, “Oddball.”
“Massacred” read the banner headline in the local newspaper, the single word, as if describing an act of war. Below it was a photo of dead penguins and other birds, the latest casualties in Australia’s long history of imported species obliterating its native wildlife.
Foxes killed 180 penguins in that particular episode, in October 2004. But the toll on Middle Island, off Victoria State in southern Australia, kept rising. By 2005, the island’s penguin population, which had once numbered 800, was fewer than 10.
Today, the penguin population is back in the triple digits, and much of the credit has gone to a chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh and his strong-willed sheepdogs.
“The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins,” said Marsh, whose long-unused birth name is Allan. “They were desperate.”
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The farmer’s solution — deploy a particularly territorial breed of sheepdog to scare the foxes away — became local legend and, in September, the subject of an Australian film, “Oddball,” which fictionalized the story and made a lovable hero of one of the dogs.
The strategy is being tried elsewhere in Victoria, in hopes of protecting other indigenous species from nonnative predators.
Dozens of Australian mammal species have become extinct since European settlers began arriving in the late 18th century, bringing cats, foxes and other predators new to the ecosystem.
A recently announced plan to cull millions of feral cats, which the government says prey on more than 100 threatened species, drew new attention to the problem, while infuriating some celebrity advocates of animal rights.
Little penguins, the smallest penguin species, were once common along Australia’s southern coast. But when red foxes were imported for sport hunting in the 19th century, they found the tiny, flightless birds easy prey. (So did cats and dogs.)
The penguins’ colonies on the mainland began disappearing, which is why most are now found on islands.
Middle Island, near the city of Warrnambool in Victoria, was home to a deafening population of the birds until the early 2000s, when tidal patterns and increasing sedimentation began to make the small, uninhabited island accessible from shore. Foxes made their way there, and the birds offered little resistance.
Marsh, who lives in Warrnambool, said he knew how to reverse that trend as soon as he heard about it.
A farmer of free-range chickens, he had spent many long nights with a rifle trying to keep foxes away from his chooks, as Australians call chickens. It was during one of those nights that a better solution came to him.
“It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and the neighbors had a damn dog; you could hear it barking,” he said. “I was a bit slow off the mark. It took a few nights for me to realize it was barking at what I was trying to shoot.”
Soon he had acquired his own Maremma sheepdog puppy. Named for the region northwest of Rome where they originated, Maremma were bred to protect and live among livestock. They develop a keen sense of territory and are vigilant against intruders, though amiable toward familiar people and animals.
The farm’s first Maremma, Ben, took quickly to his new task, scaring one of the intruders away from the farm and into a road. “It got squashed,” Marsh said. “It was fox pizza.”
When the plight of Middle Island’s penguins became news, Marsh suggested Maremma could protect the birds — which, he reasoned, are simply “chooks in dinner suits.”
For a class assignment, David Williams, a university student who worked on Marsh’s farm, wrote up a proposal for deploying Maremma on the island, and he later submitted a more formal version to the state environmental agency.
But the approval process dragged on, as the plan was vetted by overlapping government entities. “There was a lot of talking,” Williams said.
Finally, in 2006, the first Maremma was put to work: Oddball, a daughter of Ben (and the name of the new film). Since then, Middle Island’s penguin population has rebounded to 150, and not one has been lost to a fox, said Williams, who now works for Zoos Victoria, the operator of three zoos in the state.
Maremma are self-reliant animals; they can be left to defend a patch of land for long periods, with a supply of food and water that they know not to wolf down right away.
Training them for the job involves introducing them to the penguin’s distinct odor.
“Penguins don’t smell particularly nice,” said Peter Abbott, manager of tourism services for the Warrnambool City Council. “They look cute and cuddly, but they smell like dead fish.” Gradually, the dogs are taught to treat the penguins like any other kind of livestock, to be defended and not harmed.
Despite their decline on mainland Australia, little penguins are not considered threatened or endangered.
But the success of the Middle Island program is significant not just for its small population of little penguins, but also for the potential to replicate the model with species more at risk.
Zoos Victoria is trying to use Maremma dogs to reintroduce to the wild the eastern barred bandicoot, a small marsupial not seen outside captivity since 2002.
On Middle Island, Oddball’s successors, Eudy and Tula, are keeping foxes away but, at 8 years old, are nearing retirement.
Local groups managing the project recently raised more than $18,000 online to buy and train two new Maremma pups.
Oddball herself, now 14, is retired and lives under Marsh’s house. “She comes out when she wants to,” he said. “She doesn’t do personal appearances.”