In 2005, the Little Penguin population of Australia's Middle Island dropped to fewer than 10 birds. When volunteers began keeping records in the 1990s, more than 700 penguins lived there.
Faced with the possibility of losing the colony entirely, the Warrnambool City Council knew something had to be done, but they faced numerous challenges.
At low tide, the small rocky island, which is situated just a few hundred feet from the mainland, is easily accessibly by trampling tourists and hungry predators - namely, the European red fox, an introduced species. A boardwalk was built to keep people off the rookery and efforts were made to shoot and poison the foxes, but the penguins continued to die.
Then David Williams, an environmental science student who worked part-time at a free-range egg farm approached the city council with a proposal. He suggested placing Maremma sheepdogs - the same dogs his employer used to protect chickens - on Middle Island.
Maremmas have been used in Italy to protect sheep from predators and thieves for centuries. Unlike herding breeds that nip and chase flock, these dogs bond with the animals they protect and integrate with the herd, making them ideal guardians.
The city council agreed to a four-week trial to test Williams' idea, and a Maremma named Oddball - an experienced chicken protector - was selected for penguin duty. Seven years later, the experiment continues.
The project has had its downsides - the first couple of dogs ran home at low tide and a few penguins died of internal bleeding from roughhousing puppies - but the Middle Island Maremma Project has been a success. Since its implementation in 2005, penguin numbers are back in the hundreds.
Today, Middle Island is home to not only many pairs of happy feet, but also two Maremma sheepdogs known as Eudy and Tula, whose names come from the technical name for Little Penguins, Eudyptula minor. The dogs bonded with the penguin colony as puppies and now identify the birds as members of their pack. [continue]
This is very cool.