Prioritizing livestock breeds for conservation needs to incorporate both genetic and non-genetic aspects important for the survival of the breeds. Here, we apply a maximum-utility-strategy to prioritize 14 traditional Ethiopian sheep breeds based on their threat status, contributions to farmer livelihoods (current breed merits) and contributions to genetic diversity. Contributions of the breeds to genetic diversity were quantified using Eding's marker-estimated kinship approaches. Non-genetic aspects included threats (e.g. low population size, low preferences by farmers) and current merits (economic, ecological and cultural merits). Threat analysis identified eight of the 14 breeds as threatened. Analysis of current merits showed that sub-alpine and arid-lowland breeds contribute most to farmer livelihoods in comparison to other breeds. The highest contribution to the genetic diversity conserved was from the Simien breed. Simien showed high between-breed (low between-breed kinship = 0.04) as well as high within-breed diversity (low within-breed kinship = 0.09 and high HE = 0.73 and allelic richness = 6.83). We combined the results on threat status, current breed merits and contributions to genetic diversity to produce a ranking of the 14 breeds for conservation purposes. Our results balance the trade-offs between conserving breeds as insurance against future uncertainties and current sustainable utilization. The ranking of breeds provides a basis for conservation strategies for Ethiopian sheep and contributes to a regional or global conservation plan.
Keywords: conservation, sheep, diversity, threat status, breed merit