Fierce breed excels at protecting sheep
At the sound of gravel crunching under tyres, the dogs' ears prick and their hackles rise. The barking starts when the car comes to a stop and the two white maremmas race to sniff out any threats.
The dogs, Hunter and Hindmarsh, are fast, fierce and have a sixth sense for danger, says Whanganui farmer Tim Farrell.
"At the slightest noise, they are off. They are brilliant guard dogs and a good deterrent."
Maremma is a shortening of the Italian pastore maremmano-abruzzese. The breed pre-dates the Roman empire and stories of their strong sense of guardianship have been passed down the centuries.
It is a quality some New Zealand farmers are drawing on to protect their stock from the modern curse of rustling, estimated to cost $120 million a year.
Farrell, who runs 2000 stock units on 234ha of remote hill country, had the threat of rustling in mind when he bought Hunter and Hindmarsh as pups from Tauranga breeder Carol Gunn.
She says maremmas are relatively easy-care and an effective solution for farmers looking to stop their income disappearing in night-time raids.
"They are a very special breed of dog - intelligent, loyal and extremely protective of anything they consider their family," Gunn says.
She has been breeding and selling to farmers around New Zealand and has seen a recent surge of interest from Gisborne farmers who have been victims of a spate of rustling.
"They will even guard the family cat. We have a young pup at the moment named Solomon and he protects the cats, though the neighbour's ones are fair game, as are the roosters if they wander into his territory."
During lambing and kidding Solomon will play with and lick the lambs and kids on her small petting farm. She says this is typical of the breed.
Farrell has been fortunate with no problems with sheep rustling but says with Hunter and Hindmarsh on patrol he is well-prepared.
Maremmas need little training as they instinctively know what to do when they are left with the sheep in a paddock, he says.
"This is what they are bred for. They can be left in the paddock with the flock overnight to keep guard and scare away any predators.
"When the flock is shifted to a new paddock they go on patrol, walking the perimeter, sniffing out potential danger. Two hours later, they will walk the perimeter again."
Working with stock, the dogs have a knack for making even the most stubborn animals do what is required, Farrell says.
"They sense when stock are being stubborn and they jump in, round them up and keep them in line so I can get the work done."
The dogs have integrated well with his team of 10 working dogs, quickly asserting themselves at the top of the order.
"There is definitely a pecking order. Hunter is top dog, then Hindmarsh, and then the rest. Jack, the little jack russell, is at the bottom, but he is a tough little guy and he will stand up to Hunter and Hindmarsh - not that he ever wins, though."
The maremmas are also his own personal bodyguards. "Watching them spring into action is an impressive sight, considering their size.
"They keep an eye on me and if someone was to come at me in an aggressive or threatening manner, they would intercept the situation pretty quickly.
"Recently, I was at another farm helping out and the owner's dog came running towards us. He appeared quite aggressive and before I knew it, Hunter raced towards him and intercepted him."
He says the dogs are not only protective, but accepting and friendly. He recently married and both Hunter and Hindmarsh accepted wife Madeline with no problems.
He and Gunn have heard many tales of the breed. One is of a farmer who saw his dog running across a paddock and into a gully with something in its mouth. The farmer found the gully filled with 24 dead foxes.
In another, a pack of wolves was seen emerging from a forest to attack a herd of sheep. A pack of 10 maremmas were on patrol and as soon as they sensed danger, five of the dogs raced towards the wolves while the other five protected the flock.
Gunn says that by nature they are not aggressive. "It can take quite a lot for their temper to rise but when it does, they will attack and have been known to kill a wolf."