Characterisation of indigenous Zulu (Nguni) sheep for utilisation improvement and conservation.
Kunene, Nokuthula Winfred.
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The Nguni sheep of Zululand, South Africa, are called the Zulu sheep. They are a source of food and cash for the rural farmers of KwaZulu-Natal. There is insufficient information available about the characteristics of this breed and accordingly the breed is classified as “insecure”. Documentation of characteristics of a breed is important for its utilisation, improvement or conservation. This study was undertaken to document (i) the utilization of the Zulu sheep, (ii) some morphological characteristics, (iii) establishing a cost effective body measurement recording means and (iv) the intra- and inter-population genetic variation of the breed using random amplified polymorphic DNA markers. A survey was conducted to investigate the socio-economic and cultural values of the farmers attached to livestock including the Zulu sheep. A total of 76 rural farmers were interviewed in the areas of the Mhlathuze district in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Constraints and the indigenous knowledge of the farmers on livestock production were also recorded. The results confirmed that the Zulu sheep in the rural areas are indeed used as a source of protein and cash when necessary. Farmers reported that the Zulu sheep are tolerant to ticks and able to withstand the hot and humid conditions of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Goats and cattle as well as the Zulu sheep are also used for payment of dues in the tribal courts. Even so, Zulu sheep are not used for any cultural purposes. The system of management is fairly extensive. Some farmers apply indigenous knowledge as part of management practices. For instance, they use indigenous plants as nutrient supplements and for increasing the reproduction rate of these animals. Lack of modern animal husbandry skills was declared by the farmers as one of the main challenges. A perception among the farmers was that the Government could assist in addressing this challenge. Three populations of Zulu sheep reared extensively in three localities were used for the morphometric and genetic studies. The areas were the community of KwaMthethwa (Enqutshini), University of Zululand (UNIZULU) and Makhathini Research Station. Makhathini and KwaMthethwa are 260 and 40 km, respectively, away from UNIZULU. The morphometric study was undertaken to determine the extent of phenotypic diversity between Zulu sheep populations using six morphological characteristics. Effects of some factors (location, age, sex and season) on some of these traits were estimated. Results showed that the size of the body measurements, wither height (WH), heart girth (HG), live weight (LW) and scrotal circumference (SC) were significantly different between the populations. Variation in these body measurements was influenced significantly by the location, season, the sex and the age of sheep. Mature ewes weighed up to 32 kg whereas the rams weighed up to 38 kg. The differences in LW, HG and WH between the seasons were small. The SC increased with the age of the ram up to 28 cm for mature rams. Other traits observed were the colour and the ear length of Zulu sheep. Ear size ranged from ear buds to the most common large ears (9 to 14 cm). The dominating colours observed were brown and a combination of brown and white. Live weight prediction equations were estimated employing HG, WH and SC data. The LW prediction equations showed that the regression of HG and WH produce the best estimate equations of LW; however the HG alone also showed reliable LW estimates. Scrotal circumference was more precise for estimating the LW of younger rams below 22 months of age (R2 = 0.64 – 0.78). Fifty-two Zulu sheep from the three locations were used to assess the genetic variation within the Zulu sheep breed. A total of 2744 RAPD bands were generated ranging from 0.2 to 2 kb; ~46% of these bands were polymorphic. The genetic diversity was the lowest (5.17%) within the UNIZULU population, 8.62% within the KwaMthethwa population and highest (11.04%) within the Makhathini population. The genetic diversity between all populations was estimated at 21.91 %. Phenotypic diversity was relatively similar for the UNIZULU and Makhathini populations (41.25% and 45.63%, respectively). The phenotypic diversity between the three populations was 48.26%. Genetic and phenotypic diversity was lower for Makhathini and UNIZULU populations than for the KwaMthethwa population. It was concluded that the Zulu sheep is a smaller sized breed compared to the other South African indigenous sheep breeds like the Dorper which has been reported to have some similar characteristics to the Nguni sheep. The results confirmed that the Zulu breed has the capacity to survive without dipping and supplements during the dry season. This adaptation is of value to the communities of KwaZulu-Natal. Such characteristics warrant conserving the breed to prevent genetic erosion. The phenotypic and genetic diversity between the three populations of Zulu sheep may indicate that there is an opportunity of genetic exploitation by selecting animals based on phenotypic as well as genetic characteristics. In order to promote the conservation and sustainable use of the Zulu sheep, it was recommended that an open nucleus breeding scheme from lower-tier flocks (of the farmers) for pure breeding to nucleus flocks (in Government ranches) could be appropriate. The scheme would also address the challenges of animal husbandry as well as contribute to the improvement of the livelihood of the farmers. Farmers could use a tape measure to estimate the LW of sheep when they cannot afford scales. The morphological characteristics and the genetic diversity data generated from this study could be combined into a single data base for this sheep breed. More extensive studies, using the same or some additional phenotypic characters such as reproductive performance, need to be done. Genetic characteristics of Zulu sheep using microsatellites and mitochondrial DNA should be done to complement the present study.
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