Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Guardian dogs look after penguins

 Middle Island, just off the Warrnambool coast, provides a unique habitat for little penguins. | Photographer: | Laura Poole

Landcare finalist for Maremma dog project 

These Maremma dogs have an important job protecting local penguin populations. (Laura Poole)

Guardian dogs look after penguins

It's just far enough off Victoria’s south west coast line to be called an island.
Middle Island, in the heart of Warrnambool’s tourist precinct, is only about 100 metres from the beach.
At low tide volunteers who monitor penguin numbers can walk out to the island, only wetting their ankles.
But so can foxes. They can even swim out when the tide is high.
The foxes aren't as thoughtful as conservation volunteers.
They prey on little penguins and in 2005 had reduced their population to just four.
Middle Island is surrounded by jagged rocky edges, making it impossible to fence out the foxes.
The Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group decided something had to be done.
A group volunteer was working at a local chicken farm while he completed a marine science degree.
He'd watch Maremma guardian dogs protect chickens from fox attack at the free range farm.
He thought if it works for chickens, why not penguins?
Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group took a tried and true agricultural method and adapted it to conservation in what's thought to be a world first.
And it's worked.
Penguin numbers at Middle Island have increased from four to 150 in five years.
The dogs spend time on the island marking their scent and protecting the birds from predators.
And it wasn't a one off.
Just down the coast at Portland the Point Danger Committee of Management is using Maremma dogs to protect the local Gannet population.
The Gannets have also experienced a dramatic population recovery.
Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group leader Don McTaggart says it's a rewarding project to be involved in.
"It gives you pleasure to see nature bouncing back.
"The community is right behind it."
The project is a finalist for a National Landcare Award.


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