Image Source: https://www.smh.com.au/
Last month a very special pack of animals was released near Skipton in Victoria’s south-west: a flock of sheep, two giant sheepdogs, and 20 tiny, shy marsupials.
This unusual group is serving an important conservation purpose: it is hopefully the start of bringing the eastern barred bandicoot back from extinction in the wild.
Keepers at Werribee Open Range Zoo have spent four years training Maremma sheepdogs, which look like giant golden retrievers with long white coats, to protect the bandicoots from predators, particularly foxes.
The bandicoots were widespread in southwest Victoria before habitat destruction and predators introduced by European settlers led to their extinction in the wild.
The small, gentle insect-eaters now survive only as captive breeding populations. Zoos Victoria is hoping its Maremma strategy will get them back into the wild.
Maremma sheepdogs are used in Italy to protect sheep from predators. Their sunny disposition masks surprising strength, and the dogs have developed a reputation for fending off wolves, bears and human predators. They form strong protective bonds with the animals they care for.
In 2006, a group of the dogs was imported to protect the little penguin population on Middle Island near Warrnambool that had been hunted down by foxes to just 10 individuals. There have been no fox attacks since, and penguin numbers have rebounded to almost 200.
“We’ve trained the dogs to leave the bandicoots alone and instead bonded the dogs to protect a flock of sheep,” Zoos Victoria guardian dog co-ordinator David Williams said.
“The dogs are not bonded directly to the bandicoots as they are solitary and nocturnal – so they do not flock. However, sheep do flock, and in the Skipton reserve the sheep can eat grass, bandicoots can live in the grassland and all three species can share the same habitat.”
The hope is that the small colony in Skipton can become self-sustaining. Further releases in other sites across Western Victoria are planned for next year.