Just off the coast of Warrnambool city, Australia’s Middle Island is home to some very small residents, at the center of a big achievement.
There one can find the little penguin, also known as the fairy penguin, which as the same suggests is the world’s smallest—standing just 35 centimeters tall.
Starting in 1991, sedimentation and tidal patterns created a short window during the year when a tidal causeway allowed access to Middle Island from the mainland, which foxes quickly discovered and used to devastate this ground-nesting bird population.
Enter a rather unlikely hero. A local chicken farmer named Swampy Marsh had no professional background in conservation, but what he did understand over many years of keeping chickens was how to defeat or outfox foxes.
Running up to 5,000 chickens free-range, Marsh used Maremma dogs as guardians. These great big white pooches, officially known as Pastori Maremma-Abruzzesi owing to their Italian origins from the coastal region of Maremma, were excellent protectors of Marsh’s flock, and he figured that since little penguins are equally as defenseless against foxes, the same protection scheme would work.
And it did; though officially no dogs were allowed on Middle Island, the severity of the little penguins’ plight convinced Warrnambool city council to give it a go. Marsh then arrived with his dog Oddball and got to work.
Their success was immediate and sustained. It totally changed the fox pattern for entry onto the island and soon Oddball’s role was professionalized, creating the Middle Island Project for breeding these Maremma dogs for use in protecting Middle Island.
During 2006 and 2017, the first two Mamemma dogs, Eudy and Tula, ensured that not a single fox attack took place, and the island’s penguins grew to 180 birds.
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The dogs don’t actually attack the foxes, they just hang out on the island in pairs. If they smell a fox in the distance, their deep, basso barks are enough to scare the predators away. Conservationists ensure the dogs can take a few days off, and have everything they need to do their job, including food, water, shade, and company.
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Editor’s note: This story has been altered to better reflect the distribution of little penguins in Australia.