Penguin protector Mezzo the maremma is on the job helping Middle Island occupants fight back
Middle Island’s famous penguins have a new hero — an 18-month-old bundle of fluff called Mezzo.
- Mezzo is the latest maremma to join the penguin protecting pack at Warrnambool’s Middle Island
- The penguins on the colony in south-west Victoria are making a comeback after fox attacks nearly wiped them out
- The maremmas of Warrnambool found fame the movie Oddball
Mezzo is a maremma, a breed of Italian sheepdog that has been guarding the penguin colony on the island in Warrnambool, south-west Victoria, since 2005.
The introduction of the dogs to the island — popularised in the 2015 film Oddball — helped rejuvenate the coastal town’s struggling penguin population that had dwindled to fewer than 10 as a result of fox attacks and burrow-trampling.
But the resurgence was short-lived.
Disaster struck in the spring of 2017 when a fox beat the maremmas to the island, killing 140 penguins in a violent spree.
“Most of penguins arrive in October, but in 2017 they came in August when there were really rough conditions,” Middle Island coordinator Trish Corbett said.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t have the dogs on the island
“Simply put — if we don’t have the dogs there, foxes will get there and we’ll have no penguins at all.”
Which is where Mezzo comes in.
Joining a line of penguin protectors
Big shoes to fill, young man: Mezzo met his mentor, one of the Maremmas that were retiring, early last year. (Contributed: Warrnambool City Council)
Mezzo commenced his training in February, an arduous task that started with guarding chickens on a farm, harnessing the dogs’ fiercely loyal nature.
He excelled, and in his first summer on the island Mezzo has overseen a remarkable turnaround in the penguin population.
“We have at least 50 breeding penguins at the moment so we’re looking up from what we had last year,” Ms Corbett said.
“We’re really hoping that by the end of January we’re going to have about 100 penguins in our colony.”
Trish Corbett and volunteer Tom Stanfield walk two maremmas near Warrnambool’s Middle Island. (ABC South West Victoria: Daniel Miles )
Situated about 150 metres from the Warrnambool foreshore, Middle Island is connected to the shore by a tidal sand bridge and has been home to the colony for decades.
While the island’s numbers may be small, experts say its colony is imperative to the growth of Victoria’s penguin population.
“Phillip Island [in eastern Victoria] has 32,000 penguins, a huge colony, but there’s only limited numbers on the coast,” Ms Corbett said.
“We keep hearing of more colonies being affected by foxes, wild dogs or cats. And if we keep having that we’ll lose that genetic variability and we could end up seeing penguins being threatened.”
Volunteer Tom Stanfield receives a kiss from Mezzo the maremma. (ABC South West Victoria: Daniel Miles )
John Sutherland has been volunteering at Middle Island before the original maremma, Oddball, spent two weeks protecting penguins nearly 15 years ago.
He said it was one of the best things to happen to Warrnambool.
“We’re very excited, it’s a lot better than we thought it’d be,” Mr Sutherland said.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in population because the dogs are keeping the foxes away.”
Not just penguins
While popular for their work with penguins, maremmas have also been used to protect free range chooks, gannets and young lambs.
They have even been used to help protect the endangered eastern barred bandicoot.
“Maremmas have an incredible instinct to protect whatever they’ve bonded with from a really young age,” Ms Corbett said.
Small wooden structures that act as penguin huts on Middle Island. (ABC South West Victoria: Daniel Miles)
“Right from 8-10 weeks, when you get them from a breeder, we take them across to the island and get them used to the penguins.
“We also train them on chickens, another flightless bird. When they’re on the farm that’s what they’re protecting.”
Mr Sutherland said this bonding, and the protection of the area’s little occupants, is crucial to its larger occupants.
“There’s a lot of people who come here just to see the dogs and learn about the penguins,” he said.
“They’ve all got to eat in Warrnambool, stop somewhere. Quite a bit of money comes into town because of the penguins and dogs.”