CURLY McCormack was a cattle breeder, woolgrower, horseman, first-rate poacher, gifted raconteur and a good friend. He was mountain country bred from around Mansfield and I worked with him for many a shearing season on the property he ran with his brothers.
When cancer was finally getting the upper hand, he did us the honour of including us on his farewell tour and came down to spend a night with us. Despite his famed bushman skills, he got lost in the early Gippsland fog and the coffee pot boiled dry as we anxiously waited for his return from Loch with the morning papers.
Curly was responsible for my introduction to maremma dogs. Every year the McCormacks moved a mob of 500 wethers into the wild bush country above Merrijig and every year at shearing time they would muster 400. The area was rife with wild dogs. Then he heard about this incredible breed of Italian guard dog. Once maremmas were introduced and bonded to the flock of wethers, the wild dogs still had their victories but losses were reduced by more than half. This single maremma lived with the flock, taking time out two or three times a year to travel the 20 kilometres to the homestead for a brief spell of R and R before returning to his duties. He finally met his untimely end through a lighting strike. His successor, who I am told carried out his duties admirably, was a donkey, but that’s another story.
I later met angora goat breeders who employed maremmas but it was not until we came down to South Gippsland that I became aware that they were also widely used to safeguard chooks. I saw them on duty at Phil Westwood’s free range egg property at Glen Forbes and recently heard about Korumburra farmer Emma Brown, her 1200 Isa Brown hens and her two maremma sheepdogs, Sonya and Sampson.
“One day before we got the dogs,” Emma tells me, “I watched as a fox came from next door and ran through the flock killing 12 birds within minutes before I could intervene. Not a single bird taken to be eaten, just a killing spree.”
Emma Brown and Sampson
She got Sonya and Sampson through Maremma Rescue, which collects the breed from dog shelters and lost dog homes, retraining them and selling them to suitable homes
“Both my dogs were deemed suitable for guarding poultry. Sonya was particularly timid when we got her and it took a long time to win her trust. I think she had been badly mistreated. They are very affectionate dogs, not guard dogs as such. They deter would-be invaders with their barking.”
Since they got the Maremmas last December, they have not lost a single hen to predators.
The hens are rotated in large, fenced paddocks and where they go, so go Sonya and Sampson. Fox lights are also employed but Emma questions their value. With an eye to the future, she has bought a backup in Mopsy, a four-month-old maremma pup.
Unlike Curly’s dog, which was paddock hopper fed, Emma’s dogs get fed twice a day plus as many eggs as they like to pilfer. With a production of 800 eggs daily, their take would hardly be missed.
I could not help noticing the affinity of names that Emma has with her farm companions. The dictionary gives the pronunciation of maremma as ‘Mar – Emma’ and her chosen breed of poultry is ‘Isa Brown’. No doubt she is fed up hearing that observation.
My favourite story about this remarkable dog is how they saved a little penguin colony from fox annihilation on Middle Island in Stingray Bay, a stone’s throw off the coast of Warrnambool. Man-made constructions had led to sand and silt deposits that eventually narrowed the gap between mainland and island. The crossing today is so shallow at low tide it has become an easy stroll for foxes seeking a snack of penguin, short tailed shearwater or other varieties that are on the menu.
It is on record that one night’s fox attack on Middle Island left a count of 180 dead little penguins. The highest kill was 234 recorded back in 2004, though this may have occurred over several days. In 2004-05 a researcher counted only four penguins returning to the island.
It was a local free range poultry man who suggested to the council that maremma dogs could be used. After all, he argued, they protected his hens “and penguins were only chooks in dinner suits”.
Today a pair of maremmas guard the island’s bird life during the breeding season under close supervision and the colony is now back to its healthy population of the past.
It seems ironic that man’s activities disrupted the balance of nature and nature provided the breed of dog to right the wrong.