(N.Morgan) Middle Island is a small and rocky stretch of land that is nestled close to the shore of south-western Victoria, Australia, in Stingray Bay next to the city of Warrnambool, that is home to a species of tiny penguin, that almost disappeared forever.
The island has become a wildlife sanctuary which is home to breeding colonies of little penguins known as Eudyptula minor and short-tailed shearwaters penguins known as Ardenna tenuirostris.
Middle Island Maremmas
The little penguin is the smallest species of penguin.
They grow to an average of 33 cm (13 in) in height and 43 cm (17 in) in length, though specific measurements vary by subspecies. It is found on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand, with possible records from Chile.
In Australia, they are often called fairy penguins because of their small size. In New Zealand, they are more commonly known as little blue penguins or blue penguins owing to their slate-blue plumage.
The island has now been closed to general public access due to the low penguin population.
Due to the proximity of the island to the coast, it is accessible at low tide to predators such as foxes and stray dogs. As a result, the penguin colony dwindled down to only 4 penguins left by 2005.
Facing the threat of a complete colony collapse, chicken farmer Alan Marsh, who had trained Maremmas to protect his free-range chooks, suggested to conservationists to use the same technique training the Maremmas to protect the endangered penguins.
The Maremma-Abruzzese Sheepdog was chosen for their ability to protect livestock and an easy-going nature.
The Maremma Sheepdog has a solid, muscular build, a thick white coat, a large head and a black nose.
According to the breed standard, males should weigh 35 to 45 kilograms (77 to 99 lb) and stand 65 to 73 centimeters (26 to 29 in) at the shoulder, while females weigh 30 to 40 kilograms (66 to 88 lb) and stand 60 to 68 centimeters (24 to 27 in). Some dogs may be considerably larger.
The coat is long and thick; it is rough to the touch, and forms a thick collar around the neck. It should be solid white; some minor yellowing may be tolerated.
This program has supported the re-establishment of a colony of over one-hundred penguins in 2009 and by 2015, the penguin population had reached almost two-hundred.
The first dog that was used in this experiment was named Oddball and despite her name, she was the Maremma that showed dogs could be trained to protect a Victorian penguin colony.
Oddball spent only two weeks on Middle Island guarding penguins, but her short trip led to a permanent Maremma dog program.
She was also the inspiration for the movie 2015 family film Oddball.
Sadly, Oddball passed away at the age of 15, but her legacy lives on with the Middle Island penguin protection program.
Oddball (2015) Trailer [HD]
A movie based on the true story about an eccentric chicken farmer (Shane Jacobson) who, with the help of his granddaughter, trains his mischievous dog named Oddball to protect a wild penguin sanctuary from fox attacks, and in the process tries to reunite his family and save their seaside town. The cast of Oddball includes Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, nine-year-old Coco Jack Gillies (who also had a role in Mad Max: Fury Road), Offspring’s Richard Davies and funny men Dave Lawson and Frank Woodley.
Oddball (2015) Meet Chip & Edith [HD]
“The colony really was on its last legs and just one more fox attack would’ve finished it off – it really was a smorgasbord for foxes there,” Peter Abbott, manager of tourism services at the council, told Guardian Australia.
“The dogs protect the penguins and allow their numbers to naturally rebound. They’ve worked very well but it’s run on the smell of an oily rag – we don’t get state or federal funding.”
Eudy and Tula, the Middle Island guard dogs, are now eight years old and project leaders are planning their retirement. A crowd-funding campaign has been launched to raise $25,000 to buy and train two puppies to replace Eudy and Tula.
“The dogs are lined up with the breeders but we need to buy them and they will need a couple of years to train so they know what they are doing,” Abbott said.
“There are ups and downs in the process. This is a world first, so we are kind of writing the manual as we go. These dogs are normally used for chickens, after all.”
The maremmas are sent to Middle Island over the warmer months when a sandbar – which gives foxes access – appears. Volunteers feed and check on the dogs each day.
The dogs are introduced to the penguins and become friends with them. They then bark at anyone or anything which approaches the penguins.
“We train them that the island is theirs – 90% of their work is through barking,” Abbott said. “But if they did get on to a fox they’d kill it.”
The 2015 fundraising drive comes as a new film opens about the guard dogs, called Oddball – after the first maremma to be used on the island. Eudy and Tula were used as “stunt doubles” on the production.
“Now that the movie is out we will need to remind them that they are working dogs and not movie stars,” Abbott said.
Here are Eudy and Tula, the maremmas who protect a colony of 150 penguins from foxes in Warrnambool, Victoria. They are both eight so two new dogs are needed. Photograph: Warrnambool city council
To donate to the cause, click here