Endangered Australian penguin colony recovers thanks to movie star sheepdogs

The banner headline in the local newspaper read “Massacred” — just the single word, as if describing an act of war.

Below it was a photo of dead penguins and other birds, the latest casualties in Australia’s long history of imported species’ decimating native wildlife.

Foxes killed 180 penguins in that particular episode, in October 2004. But the toll on Middle Island, off Victoria State in southern Australia, kept rising.

By 2005, the small island’s penguin population, which had once numbered 800, was below 10.

Today, their numbers are back in the triple digits, and much of the credit has gone to a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh and his strong-willed sheepdogs.

The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins,” said Mr. Marsh, whose long-unused birth name is Allan. “They were desperate.

The farmer’s simple solution — deploy a particularly territorial breed of sheepdog to scare the foxes away — became local legend and, in September, the subject of an Australian film, “Oddball,” which fictionalized the story and made a lovable hero of one of the dogs.

The strategy is now being tried elsewhere in Victoria, in hopes of protecting other indigenous species from non-native predators.

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