How a pack of Maremma dogs and a flock of sheep are helping save native bandicoots
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How a pack of Maremma dogs and a flock of sheep are helping save native bandicoots

Italian sheepdogs are being trained to protect native mammals in Victoria, in an Australian-first project which could one day be used in Canberra.

Australian National University visiting scholar Linda Van Bommel is researching the effectiveness of the collaborative project headed by Zoos Victoria.

Dr Linda van Bommel with a Maremma dog, which is being trained to protect native wildlife in Victoria.

Dr Linda van Bommel with a Maremma dog, which is being trained to protect native wildlife in Victoria.

The aim is to allow bandicoots to live outside of predator-proof fences, by using Maremma dogs as protection from predators.

It's a similar experiment to that used at Warnambool to protect penguins, made famous by the movie Oddball.

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The project could help bring the bandicoot back from the brink of extinction.

"As far as I'm aware, the project I'm working on with the bandicoots is the first one ever to trial it with a native Australian mammal so it's pretty exciting," Dr van Bommel said.

"But we're very much still at the starting phase of the project at this stage."

Dr van Bommel said the dogs were due to go out onto the site at the end of the year, with the bandicoots to follow soon after.

The dogs need to bond with the animal first, both for company and to know what to protect, but due to the nature of the bandicoot being small, shy and nocturnal, researchers will bond the dogs to a flock of sheep which will also live at the site.

"Because the bandicoots tend to be solitary and they hide for a large part of the day, we thought the dogs' social needs might not be met by them," Dr van Bommel said.

"During the training phase they are being introduced to bandicoots, of course, they have to know them and they have to learn that's something they have to accept as well and work with that, but they will primarily be bonded to the sheep."

Dr van Bommel has high hopes for the experiment.

"I think there's great potential for it. Personally I think it will be very successful and it could potentially have applications to other species as well."

The bandicoot story is similar to the bettongs in Canberra, where they thrive in predator-proof enclosures.

"But the moment they get released in a normal area without a predator proof fence, they get taken out. They disappear, they just don't make it," Dr van Bommel said.

In January, the Canberra Times reported 11 of 28 bettongs released into the wild had died.

Dr van Bommel said the bandicoot project could have an impact on what happens in Canberra.

"I think if it works it will be used a lot more," she said.

"If successful, it's a way to get endangered native animals outside those predator proof enclosures."

ANU Fenner School of the Environment professor Adrian Manning said with the learnings from Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary and its growing populations of native fauna, guardian dogs like the Maremma could be a useful tool in the future for restoring locally extinct species in the wider landscape.

"Linda's work opens up some exciting possibilities for native animal restoration in the broader landscape in the ACT region outside predator-proof fences," Dr Manning said.

"In rural landscapes in particular, Maremmas could potentially integrate farm production and native species restoration over large areas."

Kimberley Le Lievre is the Editor of The Sunday Canberra Times

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