70 birds killed on Middle Island.
About 70 Little Penguins were found dead on Middle Island today.
The discovery was made by members of the Middle Island Project Working Group during their first visit to the island ahead the next breeding season.
Confirmation of an attack by a fox or foxes was made by a vet following an autopsy.
With the breeding season yet to begin, the Maremma guardian dogs were not on the island at the time.
This is the first instance of a known fox attack on the island since Maremma dogs were first introduced in 2006.
The most recent counts had the colony at 182 penguins.
“The news today that a significant number of penguins have been found dead on Middle Island is devastating,” Chair of the Middle Island Project Working Group Dr Anne Wallis said.
“The Maremma's have been down at Stingray Bay this morning to scent the beach and let any foxes that are in the area know that the dogs are back on patrol for the season.
“Although the loss of so many penguins is simply tragic, fortunately it is early in the season. Burrows on the island were investigated this morning and there was no evidence of eggs.
“The Middle Island penguin population is known for its ability to produce two lots of eggs per season and there is still time for this to occur.
“The penguin colony is fragile, it needs protection and constant monitoring. The maremma dogs are the best tool we have to provide that protection.
“The Middle Island Project Working Group will assess the need to take the dogs to the island even earlier that has been done in the past.”
Warrnambool Mayor Cr Kylie Gaston said the Warrnambool community would be saddened by the penguin deaths.
“And we feel particularly for the volunteers who have worked so hard to make this a successful conservation project.
“Today’s news underlines the important role performed by the Maremma's. Those closely involved in the project will look at adapting the program to accommodate changes in penguin behaviour and any corresponding threat posed by predatory animals such as foxes.”
Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Network Penguin Monitoring Coordinator Dr Trish Corbett said that while the project had proved successful overall, foxes would always pose a risk.
“It only takes one fox to get onto the island at low tide to decimate any penguins there,” she said.
“During the winter months, Penguin monitoring and accessing the island can be dangerous due to the weather, the tide and shifting sand levels.
“For the almost 500 people who have contributed to the project over the years, this is heart-rending.”
As well as the Maremma's “scenting” the beach near the island today, Council staff will monitor the beach tonight before the maremmas are placed on the island at low tide early tomorrow morning.
Foxes almost wiped out the colony in 2005, with fewer than 10 birds surviving.
Maremma guardian dogs were introduced in a world-first program with the colony beginning to recover over the subsequent decade.
Middle Island remains closed to the public.