Sheepdogs have proved such perfect guardians for a colony of fairy penguins on a small south-coast Australian island that conservationists are confident the caring canines can be recruited to safeguard other endangered animals from being savaged by foxes and wild dogs.
"We're now starting to see some great results," said Middle Island Maremma Project manager Ian Fitzgibbons. "We've had our best penguin count since we began in 2006 with over 80 birds counted in one night and I think we have about 26 chicks on the island too."
Maremmas are a breed of sheepdog from Italy that bond with flocks and protect them from predators. They live with their flocks and will lay down their lives for them.
Until a couple of Maremmas were recruited to guard the fairy penguins on Middle Island four years ago, conservationists had despaired of saving the colony. Numbers had fallen from 5,000 to just 100.
"We've seen the Maremmas barking when other animals come into the area," Fitzgibbon told Australia's AAP news agency. "And we've seen foxes visiting the area less frequently as a result of the Maremmas being on the island. They can smell them and sense that there's another dog on the island and they basically stay right away."
He said the project had sparked interest around the globe.
"Because no one else in the world has done it, no one has used Maremmas for conservation management, we're the pioneers and learning as we go and I guess it's a step by step process," Fitzgibbons said.