Have you heard the one about the unlikely friendship between the bandicoot and the maremma sheepdog?
The University of Tasmania is playing a key role in a trial to reintroduce the eastern barred bandicoot into the wild in Victoria, putting them under the guard of maremma sheepdogs.
Tasmania is the last stronghold of the eastern barred bandicoot, which is extinct in the wild on the mainland due to habitat destruction and the introduction of predators like foxes.
A collaboration between UTAS and Zoos Victoria will trial whether maremma dogs, traditionally used to guard livestock in Italy, will be able to keep the bandicoots safe from the fiendish foxes.
Eight dogs are currently being trained to bond with both the bandicoots and sheep, over whom they will keep a careful eye.
UTAS will monitor the wellbeing of the bandicoots and the success of the trial.
“The monitoring of the survival of the bandicoots and the fate of the bandicoot population is something that we are going to do with Zoos Victoria,” UTAS professor of wildlife conservation Christopher Johnson said.
“The university's involvement in this is quite central and it really helps to understand if the trial is working, and why.”
Professor Johnson said the bandicoot used to be a common farmland species, as it naturally occurs in open woodlands with a grassy understory.
“If we were able to protect them (the bandicoots) from predators by a method that also fitted with farm management then that means lots of other people could do it,” he said.
“Anyone who’s got a bit of a problem protecting their sheep from foxes might want to think about using these guardian dogs for protection and once they've done that, if we prove that the guardian dogs can help protect the bandicoots, then just about any farmer in Victoria could be a bandicoot conservationist.
“The potential is really wide, it could be like country wide conservation to the extent that people are willing to participate in it.”
Professor Johnson is hopeful the trial will work, and said if it does it will be significant.
“If it works for that then it should work for other things as well, like eastern quolls which are in the same position as bandicoots,” he said.
The university has already been monitoring the foxes in the area of the trial, to understand their behaviour and numbers.
“Then when the dogs go in we’ll monitor them to measure the change in the use of the area by foxes and the behaviour of those foxes,” Professor Johnson said.