Livestock Research for Rural Development 23 (4) 2011 Notes to Authors LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Local poultry populations in Tunisia: Present and alternatives. A review

A Raach-Moujahed, N Moujahed* and B Haddad*

Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture de Mateur, 7030, Tunisia
* Institut National Agronomique de Tunisie, LRAA, 43 Av. Ch. Nicole, 1082 Tunis-Mahragène, Tunisia


The traditional poultry system always existed in Tunisia mainly in rural regions and around urban areas. Meat and eggs from local poultry population are more and more claimed by consumer mainly for presumed higher sensorial and gustative qualities. This publication discusses the present situation of the traditional poultry production, mainly current performances and constraints and presents some alternatives to improve productivity of local bird such as coupled genetic and management actions, outdoor or moreover,  organic systems. These alternatives may contribute to establish sustainable traditional farming, to define labeled products and finally to enhance farmers income.

Key words: improvement, performance

Les populations du poulet local en Tunisie: Présent et alternatives. Une revue


Le système traditionnel d’élevage des volailles a toujours existé en Tunisie dans les régions rurales et aux alentours des zones urbaines. La viande et les œufs  des populations des volailles locales sont de plus en plus demandés par les consommateurs en raison de leur présumée bonne qualité sensorielle et gustative.  Dans cette publication nous discutons la situation actuelle du secteur traditionnel, surtout les performances actuelles et les contraintes du secteur. Nous présentons aussi quelques alternatives pour améliorer la productivité des volailles locales, comme les actions combinées d’amélioration génétique et de conduite et/ou le système sur pâturage ou encore le système en élevage biologique. Ces alternatives pourraient contribuer à établir un élevage traditionnel durable, à définir des labels ou des appellations d’origine contrôlée  et finalement à améliorer le revenu des éleveurs.  

Mots clés: amélioration, performance


The traditional poultry system always existed in Tunisia mainly in rural regions (especially Northern West, center and South). It is characterized by low performances and based on heterogeneous poultry population with total absence of any genetic selection. Until the 60s, it represented the only source of poultry products. The first industrial unit of broiler was installed in 1967 and from 1970 poultry production activity known his real starting due to the encouragements of investments and the high subsidy of the raw materials used in poultry feeds. Consequently, the importance of the traditional sector decreased from one year to another, yielding the place to the industrial sector which known a rapid and considerable development (Bessadokand et al 2003). This development was supported by the establishment of several hatcheries and concentrate manufactures which contributed to transfer technology package and to diffuse modern poultry breeding ways between the farmers. In 1984, an Interprofessional Grouping of the Avicolous Products (GIPA) was created mainly in order to assure the organization of the profession and the production and the progressive habilitation of the sector. Earlier, this grouping was associated to cunicoles and called the Interprofessional Grouping of Avicolous and Cunicoles (GIPAC).

Currently little precise information are available concerning the traditional poultry production. The extensive breeding mode and the importance of the subsistence farming make this sector difficult to encircle and until the 90s, no drastic actions were undertaken to promote the traditional sector of the local poultries (Bergaoui 1990, Bessadek et al 2003). According to the GIPAC (2010), this sector produces 5400 tones of poultry meat and 216 millions of eggs yearly, which represent about 16 and 20 % of poultry meat and eggs respectively. Unfortunately no policy has been set up for the management of genetic local poultry resource and this sector is particularly struck by genetic erosion, in the Maghreb as in the rest of the world, because of the generalization of the use of the hybrid birds (Bessadok et al 2003). Currently, a real demand of special products from heritage chicken breeds is more and more registered between the consumers. Consequently a serious interest is given to valorize local poultry breeds both for eggs and meat production. In the current paper we discuss the current situation, the different constraints and some possibilities to develop such alternative poultry production in Tunisia.   

Origin of local chicken


As in all the Mediterranean regions chicken were introduced in Tunisia by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians commercialized them in Italy, Spain, Portugal.  Since this time, poultry were raised to produce a source of human feeding and constituted a tradition in familial and religious festivals and practices (Bergaoui 1990, Fotsa 2008, Tixier-Boichard et al 2006 and Moula et al 2009a).


The local poultry population would derive from the wild populations by accumulation of visible mutation effects. It is genetic constitution is seldom stable because of the several forces which may modify the genetic structures (Moula et al 2009a,b,c) mainly mutations, migrations, selection, coupling system and its size. This population presents an important morphologic variability in breeding systems which largely depend on environment. The available poultry races do not represent real varieties, but rather very heterogeneous populations which known a very important metissage with the introduction of races such as Sussex herminée, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock Barred, New Hampshire.  Currently a interest which consists on considering local chicken as historical and cultural patrimony to be preserved is more and more noted in several countries.


Characteristics of local poultry


Few studies were reserved to local chicken. These animals present important phenotypical heterogeneities, characterized by a multiplicity of colouring of the torce of the skin and plumage, a heterogeneous body conformation, a varied distribution of plumage on the different parts of body and structure (smooth and curly), various types of crest, varied sizes (normal or dwarf) and different natures of the peak (simple, double, rosacée, out of pea and nut). These characteristics were reported in Tunisia (Bessadok et al 2003) and common with those generally noted in several African and Middle-Eastern countries (Moula et al 2009b, Fosta et al 2007, Al-Rawi and Al-Thari, 2002, Bessadok et al 2003). The study of Bessadok et al (2003) in Tunisia, emphasized various local chicken stocks which constitute important criteria for local-consumer choice and showed that the chicken local population provides a large genetic variability allowing to assure a minimum level of production of eggs and meat. This great diversity could be used as a basis for the development of genetic improvement programs to create rustic and more productive birds.


 Performances of local poultry


Studies to evaluate performances of local chicken in Tunisia are very rare. According to Bessadok et al (2003) local-chicken eggs production varied from 55 eggs in 1976 to 127 yearly in 2000. The local cocks reached a weight of 1,620 kg at the age of 18 weeks, whereas at this same age, the local hens reach a weight of 1,206 kg. In spite of the genetic erosion, the Tunisian local population of chicken had conserved a sufficiently important variability allowing not only to guarantee a minimum level of production of eggs and meat, which the quality is very appreciated by the consumers, but also to safeguard a rich reserve of different genes (color, form, rusticity…) of a very precious value. All the studies carried out in African and Middle Eastern countries had shown that local chickens have low size of eggs and chicks, which could be related to the low performances noted in earlier ages of animals or in adult stages (Fotsa et al 2007, Moula et al 2009a, Kingori et al 2010). As it’s summarized in table 1, parameters relative to almost all performances, both for meat and eggs production remain very low in local chicken comparatively to usual norms in industrial poultry.


Some studies had focused on differences between different varieties of local chicken. In connection with this, the studies of Ramlah and Kassim (1992) had shown that the body weight at 32 weeks in clear brown (1340 g) and dark brown verities of hens (1374 G) was higher than which in black (1230 g) and white (1251 g) ones. These observations were confirmed later at 73 weeks of age with respectively the weights of 1730 g, 1678 g, 1470 g and 1416g for the same varieties cited above. For layer performances, the same authors highlighted genetic diversity between the varieties of local hens. The lowest rate of laying has been recorded in the white variety (9.9 %) and the highest in the clear brown, dark brown and black verities (from 15.2% to 17.2%), but differences were not statistically significant. In the same trend, according to N’Dri (2006a), GN poultry have higher size and weight than GD ones in all equal ages from one day (39.2 g vs. 32.8 g) to slaughtering (2102.1 g vs. 1553.6 g). Eggs from GN hens were in equal stages 12 to 19% heavier, 4 to 6% longer, and 3 to 5% larger than those from GD.


All these observations traduce a large diversity between varieties inside the same population or between different populations. This genetic variability may allow developing genetic improvement programs, based both on selection and/or crossing between different populations or between local and industrial poultries, according to local aims and/or economical objectives.


Table 1. Poultry performances  in some Arabic countries





Body weight at sexual maturity of female, g








Bessadek et al (2003)

Benabdeljelil et Arfaoui (2001)

Moula et al (2009a)


Body weight at sexual maturity of male, g





Bessadek et al (2003)

Moula et al (2009a)

Body weight at sexual maturity, g

1095 – 2526

1561 (Fayoumi)

1513 (Sinai)




Kosba and abd El-Halim (2008)

Saadey et al (2008)

Saadey et al (2008)


Starting of laying, day


162 – 166


162- 180






Al-Rawi and Al-Atari (2002)

Benabdeljelil and Arfaoui (2001)

Kosba et abd El-Halim (2008)


Egg number


128 (Dandarawi)

141 (Fayoumi)



41 – 62 (first 90 days of laying)








Horst (1991)

Horst (1991)

Benabdeljelil et Arfaoui (2001)

Bessadok et al (2003)

Kosba et abd El-Halim (2008)


Mortality (%)






Benabdeljelil et Arfaoui (2001)


Brood number by year

2 – 6




Benabdeljelil et Arfaoui (2001)


Egg number by one brood



Benabdeljelil et Arfaoui (2001)



Current production system of local poultry in Tunisia

In Tunisia, the traditional management of local chicken is held by farmers to satisfy their daily needs with no preoccupation about genetic improvement. Because of the low registered performances, some farmers, mainly the new promoters, try to practice some crossings, which were often abandoned because of the total absence of rigorous control and registrations. Very few quantitative data are available about traditional management systems of poultry in Tunisia. As in several other developing countries, farmers generally practice an extensive system mainly marked with a total absence of well balanced feeding, adequate housing and appropriate veterinary cares and treatments (Bergaoui 1990, Fotsa et al 2007 and Fosta 2008). During the last years, we noted the development of some production units based on an almost semi-intensive system. In these farms, the housing boxes are built inside a concession with a barrier made of locally available materials. These shelters and their annexed areas allow the hens to move with no stressing constraints. These systems give hens the advantage to express naturally their behavior with no influence of artificial or sophisticated environment. In these conditions, poultry are able to control their nutritional requirements according to the available resources. The watering is done by the well water, chlorinated or not, or with drinking water (Bergaoui 1990, Bessadek et al 2003 and Fotsa 2008).

Main constraints

Local poultry is exposed to several constraints which block its development and menace its sustainability. Some of these constraints are structural and others are related to management and the low level of technology package knowledge.

Management and nutritional constraints

The traditional units of local poultry are generally owned by rural families and are composed of mixture of low size groups of birds with different ages and the hens are left in divagation, with a familial labor and maladjustment of the housing spaces. Bird houses, when exist, are precarious, overloaded and serve only during the night for rest. Consequently, these conditions resulted in low productivity, probably worsened, by one hand to the bad conditions of feeding and consanguinity and by another hand to the absence of health care, prevention and hygiene programs. In addition, the almost exclusive interest which was given to industrial poultry farming during the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, and the total absence of investments reserved to traditional poultry led to total absence of technical support for this activity and a failure concerning the definition of standards to situate technical and economical parameters. Recently, the elaboration of a policy for the development of traditional poultry production in the last decade resulted in the engagement of research programs in characterization studies and in the development of standards and local references (Bessadok et al 2003).   


In rural regions, local poultry feeding is based mainly on worms, mollusks, insects, stones, grasses and the various wastes mixed with the ground. The farmers provide some other supplements such as some cereal wastes, wet or dried bred, domestic wastes (Bessadek et al 2003), but no mineral and vitamin supplement were added. The powerless or/and the unbalance of these resources may be an important cause of mortality in cocks and even in adults and one of the main factors of the low productivity for both meat and eggs.  Some inquiries carried out in our laboratory (unpublished preliminary studies) mainly around the urban areas, showed that traditional feeding system was, recently, associated to supplementation with industrial concentrate or cereal grains and/or, in some cases, with pasture on cultivated roughages such as some leguminous (alfalfa) or grasses (barley or rye grass). In these conditions productivity mainly eggs, was significantly raised and lower mortality rates were observed both in cocks and adults. But it’s difficult to attribute these improvements only to nutrition, since some of these farmers had improved simultaneously hygiene conditions. By another hand, local poultry had never been studied concerning their precise qualitative and quantitative nutritional requirements (energy, protein, minerals and vitamins). Consequently any effort to improve feeding system is quantitatively and qualitatively improvised and likely usually aligned to the scientific knowledge relative to hybrid or industrial poultry used in intensive systems.

Sanitary constraints

Generally the animals with different ages are housed in total proximity. This worsens the lack of veterinary care and the low protection against pathologies met in this breeding system (Khan, 2004) by inducing polymicrobial contamination in bad quantitative and qualitative feeding conditions (Bergaoui 1990, Bessadek et al 2003, Fotsa et al 2007 and Moula et al 2009a). Consequently diverse poultry aviary affections are frequently observed and cause several infectious and parasitic diseases which often present seasonal apparitions. In such conditions, the mortality of chicks could rich 30 to 50% (Fotsa 2008).


The most widespread mortality causes in rural regions are Newcastle, avian variola, pasteurellose (cholera) and the infectious coryza. The disease of Newcastle is the most fatal and can devastate more than 70% of the livestock (Guèye, 2009). It causes the most economical losses mainly in the rural small farms (Fotsa et al 2007). With only vaccination against this pathology, it’s possible to reduce by 30 to 60% (Fotsa 2008, Kingori et al 2010) and by 40 to 60% the mortalities (Kingori and al 2010). The importance of vaccination is to be underlined. Indeed, in our laboratory we noted mortality rates of 0% and 3.75% respectively in chicks (2 weeks) and adults (8 weeks) from local poultry when the national program of vaccination was applied. These results are comparable with those obtained in the same conditions for Arbor acres (1% and 5.6%). In connection with this, Larivière et al (2009) noted the same trends with mortality rates of 3.3 and 7.4 % respectively in chicks (2 weeks) and adults (12 weeks) in a Belgian local chicken (the Ardennaise), when the vaccination program was applied.


It’s worthy to note that the local hens could present some forms of resistance to some pathologies. Such is the case of the Fayoumi variety in Egypt which has the reputation to be relatively resistant to various pathogenic agents such as the virus of sarcoma of Rous or coccidiose (E-Tenella) comparatively with the Rhode Island (Hamet and Mérat 1982,  Hossary and Galal 1995). In addition, Adjovi (1990) showed that in opposite to chicks, the adults developed a premonition against the coccidiose. This topic may constitute a very large field of investigations concerning the resistance of local Tunisian poultry.  

Main appropriate strategies to improve local poultry

The conservation and the safeguarding of local poultry populations are necessary because of the attachment of farmers since they represent a means of subsistence, the gustatory value of their meat and eggs, the solidity of the shells, and the high prices mainly in city markets (Bergaoui 1990, Bessadok et al 2003, Fosda 2008, Moula et al 2009a) compared with those of industrial hens, in addition to the facility of their management.   Moreover, these hens currently constitute a pertinent topic in the industrial and fundamental research (Delany, 2000) in order to conserve, to valorize and to optimize this inheritance. It’s necessity to focus on the durability of the sector by rural development and to search new products and new markets.


However, some characteristics’ of local poultry are difficult to reconcile with high production. Indeed, the favorable effect of a small size for the thermo-tolerance is difficult to reconcile with maximum performances of meat production or with sufficient egg weight. In the same way, the low plumage in some varieties which is, advantageous at high temperature, could reduce the feeding efficiency in moderate conditions or in cold season (N’dir et al 2006b). A high appetite could result in better valorization of low value diets (if that is justified economically) but deteriorate the feed conversion ratio with standard diets. Consequently any improvement alternative of local poultry performances needs to consider at the same time the objectives of production, the adaptation of animals to environment and the economical context.  In connection with this, main alternatives of sustainable development strategies could be based on genetic and/or management actions. 

Conservation and/or genetic improvement

A benefit of utilizing heritage breeds is the conservation of genetic diversity. Additionally, heritage breeds have adapted to changing environmental conditions and are natural and efficient forages. At first it’s necessary to conserve the chicken collections and its genetic morphological diversity in a specialized structure or at private collectors. These collections may constitute a gene bank which could be useful when alternatives supplementing management and genetic improvement ways are proposed for traditional birds (Bessadok et al 2003).


By another hand, as cited by Burbaugh et al (2010), it’s possible to improve heritage breeds using selection. In deed, males could be selected for meat and females for eggs production. The dual purpose chicken will not provide a large carcass as a meat bird, nor lay as many eggs as an egg layer. These birds tend to grow slowly, eat more feed and may take up to 12 weeks, or more, to reach market weight. Heritage breeds are also considered to have a stronger flavor because the age at which the birds are killed and processed is an important factor that contributes to flavor (Le Bihan-Duval 2004 and Fanatico 2007).  

Management practices

In order to conserve local breeds and to develop real agricultural and economical activities around them, some management alternatives could be proposed and may not be difficult to be practiced in Tunisia. Such alternatives are an important part of sustainable agriculture combining between increasing farmer income, protecting environment and satisfying consumers. They may result in the standardization of local poultry breeding under a form of origin controlled label, maintaining its extensive mode and improving hygienic and gustative quality of products (Bessadek et al 2003). Using this type of bird in a pasture-based production system can be used as a marketing tool.


Alternative poultry production involves specially system such as cage free environment or other access to the outdoor as alternatives to conventional poultry housing and cages (Fanatico 2006). In this connection, alternatives such as (i) intermediate system based on pasture or (ii) organic system, could be proposed in Tunisia.

(i) Intermediate system or semi-intensive system based on pasture:

In this alternative, animals are mainly left to pasture on green forage, such as alfalfa or ryegrass and confined at night. The houses could be of moderate cost and communicate with parcels of green forage (Photo 1).

Photo 1. Local poultry grazing on alfalfa (Photo Moujahed-Raach)


The surface of the houses and pasture parcels may be calibrated according to the number of animals. Animals could get supplementation with grains or cereal wastes and could be supplemented with minerals and vitamins. Water and veterinary cares could be provided. In this connection Table 2  presents the main results from an unpublished yet study carried out by our laboratory. The study dealt with a comparison of performances between Tunisian local poultry population and the industrial breed Arbor Acres, both raised in a semi-intensive system. In this study the two groups (each) were led separately and animals were left to alfalfa pasture (1.5 birds /m²) during the day and confined at night in a house (17 birds/m²) communicating with the pasture through a small door. The two groups were supplemented with growing concentrate and received the same vaccines (Newcastle, Gomboro, variola, infectious branchiate).

Table 2. Performances of Tunisian local poultry and Arbor Acres both raised in semi-intensive system


Local (0 - 16 w)

Arbor Acres (0 – 8 w)

Final Body weight, g)



Weight gain , g



DWG , g/d



FCR , g/g



Mortality , %



Dairy Feed Intake , g/d



Total Feed Intake , g DM



Forage Intake , %



DWG: daily weight gain,  FCR: feed conversion ratio


The aim from presenting such results in this paper is not to compare the two types of poultry, but to highlight two pertinent observations: 

(ii) Organic system

This is an excellent argument of sale which could contribute to enhance financial income of farmers. This alternative requires several conditions as reported by Fanatico (2008):

- Appropriate housing behavior, including outdoor access

- Certified organic feed, including pasture

- No antibiotics, drugs or synthetic parasiticides

- Organic processing of meat and eggs

- Recordkeeping system to allow tracking of poultry and products 

- Organic system plan including description of practices to prevent contamination, monitoring practices and list of inputs

- Production that does not contribute to contamination of soil or water

- No genetically modified organisms’ ionizing radiations or sewage sludge.


Since the apparition of the Tunisian law relative to organic farming N° 99-30 of April 5, 1999 (OJRT, 1999) and mainly the order of the Minister of Agriculture of July 9-2005 related to standard specifications of organic animal production (OJRT, 2005), several encouragements are allocated to farmers in order to invest in such activity and several projects have been started. In parallel, some approved certification organisms operate in order to certify organic meat and eggs. But the main problem of practicing such system is to provide organic feed resources, since these products are not yet or rarely produced in Tunisia. Consequently, developing organic birds or any other organic animal production needs to be integrated in the large program of organics agriculture.  



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Received 10 October 2010; Accepted 8 February 2011; Published 1 April 2011

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