Maremma project believers defied sceptics

WHILE farmer Swampy Marsh will be the hero in the forthcoming movie about how Maremma dogs saved endangered penguins at Warrnambool, his idea would never have blossomed without a team of other heroes in government and council departments.

They defied the knockers, cut through red tape and carefully waded through delicate environmental sensitivities to ensure the unusual concept became a successful reality.

At times their reputations were at stake and they ran the risk of upsetting superiors if the bold experiment backfired, especially in the early days when chicks were killed by a Maremma.

It all started early in 2006 after the penguin colony on Middle Island was almost wiped out after wandering foxes and dogs savaged the defenceless birds, cutting numbers from several hundred to only four.

Baiting and shooting the predators didn’t stop the slaughter and at one stage more foxes were killed by cars.

Dennington district chicken farmer Allan “Swampy” Marsh had been using Maremmas to guard his flocks and suggested the dogs could provide a solution for the penguins’ plight.

University student Dave Williams, who had been working on the Marsh farm, passed the idea to his father Stan, who was a regional wildlife manager with the former Department of Sustainability and Environment.

That set in train a series of discussions with other key officers in government departments, Warrnambool City Council, community groups, police and the RSPCA.

“People’s response was first to laugh, then get serious,” Stan Williams recalled of his initial approaches to government departments.

“The city council environmental officer (at the time) openly opposed the idea, understandably, given he’d spent his time trying to keep dogs off the island.

“But council and the DSE had no answer to the crisis — they’d tried baiting and shooting foxes.’’

Then a new environment officer Ian Fitzgibbon was appointed who was more enthusiastic and enlisted vital support from the council’s operations manager Neil Allen.

The green light for a trial came after two stakeholder discussions and a city council meeting where a Maremma sat under the council table and barked at someone entering the room.

“When the idea was first floated there was muffled laughter and some thought it was a whacky idea,” Dave Williams recalled.

“But enthusiasm quickly grew.”

Swampy’s Rotary club even offered to underwrite the trial if necessary.

“We went only to the level of authority we thought we needed at the time,” Department of Environment and Primary Industry regional co-ordinator Craig Whiteford recalled.

By November 2006 Swampy’s dog Oddball was cleared to step onto the island. The team was as nervous as the little penguins watching the canine visitor from their burrows. 

Thankfully there was a groundswell of community support bolstered partly by coverage of the experiment in The Standard and other media outlets.

“I was frightened and very nervous,” said Amanda Peucker who had been involved as part of her extensive research with Deakin University into penguins.

“We knew the penguins were breeding and when Oddball came onto the island we wondered if the chicks would be abandoned.

“Thankfully we didn’t see any more fox prints on the beach or islands after the dogs arrived.”

By the end of the first season up to 30 adults were counted and the team knew they were on a winner.

Dave Williams slept overnight, first with Oddball and then with another Maremma called Missy.

He also stayed for a few nights during the second season when two new dogs were introduced.

DEPI’s regional biodiversity manager Mandy Watson said the team had been united in determination.

“We were up front in saying it was an experiment and when there was a hiccup we didn’t try to hide it,” she said.

“Every penguin that died tugged on our heart strings.” Ian Fitzgibbon paid tribute to the dozens of community volunteers who contributed hundreds of hours in monitoring the penguins including numerous trips wading through cold water to count adults and chicks.

“In the early days we got the right people in the room,” he said.

“And when a decision was made to block public access to the island the community supported that.

“We also won corporate support from Powercor and BHP.”

The team will be eagerly awaiting the forthcoming movie Oddball, starring Shane Jacobson as Swampy, which will be filmed mainly in Warrnambool in May.

They’ll be keenly interested to see how their characters or associates are portrayed.

The movie is expected to be released for screening next year.

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