Bold, fluffy and ready for action, Wednesday and Terzo are on a mission — to protect endangered bandicoots.
The unlikely union between the Italian sheep dog and the tiny marsupial is at the centre of a research trial by Zoos Victoria to see if maremmas can be successfully used to re-establish bandicoot populations on mainland Australia.
Last week, 20 eastern barred bandicoots were released at Zoos Victoria’s second research trial site several hours drive west of Melbourne.
Returned to land their ancestors roamed before foxes wiped them out, the bandicoots scurried out of wooden boxes and into the grassland without looking back.
The release was over in minutes but the journey to get there was decades in the making.
30 years ago, Zoos Victoria began breeding the eastern barred bandicoot in captivity in a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction.
Now this plan to reintroduce them to a land still infested with predators has shown promising signs.
“[On] paddocks like this [bandicoots] are not around,” Zoos Victoria guardian dog program coordinator David Williams said.
Inspired by the Middle Island penguin project – lovingly captured in the film Oddball where maremmas were introduced to protect penguins from foxes – planning for the bandicoot trials began in 2015.
But it has taken years to train the dogs to live alongside bandicoots before they could be released.
“We very, very slowly and carefully introduced the dogs to bandicoots, and vice versa,” Mr Williams said.
Turns out the bandicoots were not too bothered by the dogs, however their solitary nature was a challenge for the dogs.
Bandicoots are territorial and live alone, spreading out through grassland rather than banding together, and this posed a problem for the maremmas which are flock guardians, Mr Williams said.
So, another fluffy animal was introduced to solve this problem – sheep.
‘No one has ever done this’
In late 2020, eastern barred bandicoots were released at another trial site at Skipton near Ballarat with two other maremmas.
Zoos Victoria endangered species biologist Amy Coetsee said the results so far were promising.
Previously unremarkable paddocks, these two trial sites were now the only places in mainland Australia where bandicoots were living outside specially designed predator-proof fences.
The only place eastern barred bandicoots existed in the wild was on several islands including Churchill and Phillip, where they have been introduced as insurance policies against extinction.
While the trial sites were fenced, it was to keep the sheep and bandicoots from escaping, not to keep foxes out.
Foxes and other predators like feral cats can pass through the site so the ability of the guardian dogs to protect their tiny friends can be tested.
“This project is very much a trial, no one has ever done this before, so we don’t know if it’s going to work,” Dr Coetsee said.
Are bandicoots a grazier’s best friend?
Reintroducing eastern barred bandicoots would have a positive impact on land in Western Victoria.
Bandicoots are prolific diggers, and their work helps seed germinate and improves soil health and the vegetation around them.
On a winter’s night a single bandicoot can turn over around 13 kg of soil, this “improves soil moisture content, soil nutrient value, and it decreases compaction”, Dr Coetsee said.
The trial site near the Grampians is owned by the Dunkeld Pastoral Company, and conservation manager Hayley Glover said she was excited to see what the bandicoots did.
“Improving soil structure and fertility is a key goal of farming,” Ms Glover said.
The paddock where the bandicoots, dogs and sheep coexist was not bare, small bands of scrub and trees have been planted and the grass was lush.
The diversity of vegetation improves productivity, but it was also necessary for the bandicoots to survive, Ms Glover said.
The research trial has piqued the interest of other farmers in the region.
Conversations at fence posts and pubs were beginning with a simple question: “What are those fluffy white dogs doing in that paddock?”
Ms Glover believed important discussions around fox control and conservation will arise from the project.
“I think this project offers a different way of looking at how can we integrate conservation, as well as having those productivity gains that [farmers] are after,” she said.
Using electronic transmitters and cameras to monitor the movement of the dogs, bandicoots and of course foxes, scientists will continue to collect data at the two trial sites for the next two years.
If the results are positive potentially more sites could be opened for bandicoots or other species in need of protection from predators Mr Williams said.
But when asked to imagine a future beyond the confines of the trial, there is one thing the scientists and conservationists dream of:
“What I would love to see is bandicoots are no longer endangered and they’re back there in the wild where they should be,” Dr Coetsee said.