Dogs come to fairy penguins\' rescue

Italian sheep dogs have been deployed to protect a colony of fairy penguins of the coast of Victoria.

Three years ago, the fairy penguin population on Victoria\'s tiny Middle Island was so decimated, the once 1,000-strong colony was down to just 10 living birds.

Now, due to a world-first conservation program, there are over 100 penguins calling the island home.

Located 150 metres offshore from Warrnambool and connected by a tidal sand bridge, Middle Island has been home to penguins for decades.

But marauding foxes annihilated that population - until a local came up with an idea.

"A local chook farmer was using Maremma dogs to protect chooks from foxes and thought the same principle could be used on Middle Island to protect penguins," Middle Island Maremma Project manager Ian Fitzgibbons told AAP.

A four-week trial of the Maremmas began in 2006 and was so successful it has been extended every year since.

Mr Fitzgibbons said the foxes were "decimating" the penguin population prior to the program - in one night alone 100 birds were killed.

"Having a penguin population right in the city is quite unique and the community along with the council saw how important it was to save this," Mr Fitzgibbons said.

"We\'re now starting to see some great results, 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."

Two six-month old Maremmas are taken out to the two-acre island daily at low tide and lay scent trails.

"We\'ve seen the Maremmas barking when other animals come into the area. 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."

There\'s been no "foxploration" on the island since the project began, Mr Fitzgibbons said.

Maremmas are large white guardian dogs, weighing up to 45kg and standing up to 73cm tall.

The breed was developed centuries ago in Italy\'s Maremmato region to protect herds of sheep and free range chickens, and the dogs are now used around the world.

"What they tend to do is bond to the territory and to the flock and basically bark at anything they might consider to be a threat to it ... it\'s in their breed to provide protective behaviour."

Interest in the project has come from around the world, with breeders from as far afield as Italy and Eastern Europe writing to the Warrnambool City Council, which runs the project.

"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," Mr Fitzgibbons said.

The project\'s success will be reviewed in March, but Mr Fitzgibbons expects it to continue indefinitely.

He\'s hopeful the penguin population will return to about 600 on the island, through breeding and migration, but expects that to take another 10 years.

Source: AAP