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01 July 2021
Dogs and sheep are rarely part of a formula when considering critically endangered native wildlife, but both are playing a major role in efforts to look after a unique marsupial.
Researchers are investigating whether the combination can protect a population of eastern-barred bandicoots released into woodland on the Grampians’ southern fringe.
The trial involves specially trained maremma guardian sheep dogs considering bandicoots ‘part of the flock’ and to inadvertently watch over them while protecting sheep.
Eastern-barred bandicoots previously roamed grassland across much of south-western Victoria including Hamilton district in Southern Grampians Shire. But a loss of habitat and a vulnerability of this gentle and shy animal to predation from introduced foxes and cats led to a dramatic decline.
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An Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team formed in the late 1980s, but the species became extinct in the wild on the mainland and has for decades been the subject of dedicated protection and breeding programs managed by Zoos Victoria.
In a collaborative trial involving Zoos Victoria, through its Guardian Dog Project and the University of Tasmania, researchers translocated the bandicoots from Phillip Island Nature Parks’ wild population and from captive breeding programs at Werribee Open Range Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Serendip Sanctuary.
They have released the animals in a Dunkeld Pastoral Company-owned reserve, where the guardian dogs had been living alongside the sheep flock.
They are now trying to determine whether the bandicoots can return to their natural mainland range, free of vermin-proof fences or sea barriers.
The dog-sheep combination comes from understanding that eastern-barred bandicoots, apart from being a curious nocturnal animal, are relatively solitary and territorial.
Maremma sheep dogs, meanwhile, are bred to protect flocks, so sheep became part of the reserve mix to establish a ‘community’ that the dogs protect overall. The process has involved years of training to adapt the dogs to the circumstances and species involved and to specifically guard against foxes.
Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Program co-ordinator David Williams said the trials were the culmination of four years of training the dogs to ignore eastern-barred bandicoots at Werribee Open Range Zoo.
“We’ve trained the dogs to leave the bandicoots alone and, instead, bonded the dogs to protect a flock of sheep,” he said.
“The dogs are not bonded directly to the bandicoots because they are solitary and nocturnal – so they do not flock. However, sheep do flock, and in the Dunkeld reserve the sheep can eat grass, bandicoots can live in the grassland, and all three species can share the same habitat.”
The southern Grampians release of 20 bandicoots is the second in Victoria involving maremma guard dogs.
A similar release involving eastern-
barred bandicoots occurred at Skipton last year with promising results.
Mr Williams said conservation scientists were thrilled to start the Dunkeld trial, following evidence of bandicoot breeding and data that indicated the presence of the dogs was altering the behaviour of predatory foxes at Skipton. “As the bandicoots are going back into natural habitat on the mainland, we anticipated that some might not make it through the journey,” he said.
“However, two months after the Skipton release, 10 of the 20 bandicoots were found to be in good condition and had gained weight. Four also had pouch-young, demonstrating that breeding is successfully occurring – which is very positive.”
Mr Williams said the research trial’s key measure of success would be the establishment of self-sustaining bandicoot populations on Victoria’s mainland.
“We are excited to see the results from these two trials to inform what the future might hold for the guardian dog program,” he said.
“The research trial at Dunkeld will run for two years, and if a population of bandicoots has established at that time, the guardian dogs might stay on site indefinitely. Following this, an expansion of the program to additional trial sites will be considered.”
Eastern-barred bandicoots by nature are also a beneficial soil-management ally.
Soil health is linked to the animals’ habit of extensively turning over the soil daily, a process that improves nutrient value, moisture levels and structure.
The 50-hectare conservation reserve at Dunkeld is equipped with 60 remote wildlife cameras and both guardian dogs are fitted with GPS trackers. All bandicoots are fitted with tiny radio transmitters weighing just over one gram, and researchers will use a drone to closely track bandicoot activity.
The Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Project is modelled on the successful Middle Island Maremma Project, where maremma dogs are trained to protect penguins. This is the first time the method is being applied to an endangered marsupial and in an open landscape.
Dunkeld Pastoral Company, Phillip Island Nature Parks and Parks Victoria have also been key project contributors.
The entire June 30, 2021 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!
The entire June 30,, 2021 edition of AgLife is available online. READ IT HERE!