Poultry play an important economic, nutritional and socio-cultural role in the livelihoods of poor rural households in many developing countries, including Ethiopia, where scavenging poultry are an integrated part of the smallholder production systems and play a significant role in poverty alleviation. Chickens have a high socio-economic value and are important to those (often landless) people who do not own cattle, sheep, or goats. Poultry production is particularly important to women, who often own and manage the chickens and control cash from sales. The resulting income is often used to support education of children.

Developing countries have many indigenous chicken varieties which are well adapted to local environments as they are excellent foragers, better able to avoid predator attacks and demonstrate better immunity to common diseases. However, due to relatively low genetic potential and poor levels of husbandry, most of these indigenous chicken breeds grow slowly and are poor producers of small sized eggs. Furthermore, infectious diseases have a major impact and prevent even this limited genetic potential from being realised. Breeding programmes using local chicken ecotypes suggest rapid improvement in productivity is possible. However, these programmes are yet to select for resistance to infectious disease.

Enhanced genetic resistance through selective breeding represents an under-exploited low cost opportunity for disease control in low input poultry production systems. The aim of this project is to develop a poultry breeding programme to improve resistance to priority infectious diseases whilst enhancing productivity and production. Realisation of this objective requires three further overlapping objectives: (i) investigation of the genetic resistance of local poultry varieties; (ii) identification of the diseases with the greatest burden to village poultry; and, (iii) investigation of the wider social and economic impact of infectious diseases and of factors affecting uptake of control strategies.

Investigation of resistance in local Ethiopian poultry will not only identify genetic regions and genes that can be used to inform cross breeding programmes in Ethiopia, but will also greatly extend our knowledge of the genetics of resistance in poultry, which to date has largely been studied in inbred and commercial poultry lines.
Our study identifying the important diseases of village poultry in Ethiopia will be the first to simultaneously examine the impact of a large number of pathogens and will begin to explore how these agents act in concert to cause the diseases seen by farmers. We will also explore the cause of the major epidemics seen each year resulting in death of many birds. Together, this knowledge will enable more precise disease control planning by Ethiopian policy makers and animal health professionals, as well as inform targeting of the breeding programme.

Village poultry production is undertaken by poor rural farmers with little or no input. This means that all output (eggs, meat, offspring) represent a net gain to the farmer, but also limits the potential for even low cost disease control interventions. Furthermore, poultry production is deeply imbedded in Ethiopian society and the characteristics of birds are important to the farmers. We will work with farmers to identify diseases impacting production and productivity of their birds, factors affecting uptake of control strategies (including indigenous controls) and the desirable characteristics of birds.

We will utilise the results of these studies to inform selection in an ongoing breeding program which is improving the productivity of local poultry ecotypes for distribution to villages. Thus we will ensure that the improved birds also have enhanced resistance to key infectious diseases.

The project will also provide a legacy of improved capacity within Ethiopia, including training of local scientists and enhanced laboratory facilities.

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