ALMOST HALF a million pounds of funding has been announced to improve research into poultry red mites.

The pests, often referred to as 'chicken mites', are parasites which need to feed on the blood of a bird to survive, develop and reproduce. They can hinder production, harbour disease and even kill birds if they get out of hand.

A grant of £483,000 has been awarded to the Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh to develop a novel way of studying poultry red mites which removes the need to use infested hens for research.

Infestation of hen houses with poultry red mites is a major animal welfare and economic problem for the egg-producing industry internationally, and multiple groups worldwide are working to develop new control methods.

This new funding injection from the National Centre Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) hopes to establish a laboratory colony of red mites and develop a novel feeding method which greatly reduces the number of hens required.

Through a series of preliminary experiments, researchers have established that poultry red mites will feed on goose blood through a disposable synthetic skin-like membrane. Live geese are particularly suited to be blood donors for this task as they can supply approximately 30 times more blood than hens in a single donation. The donor geese are looked after and cared for under very high welfare standards in a dedicated blood-donor flock.

By using this system, it has been deduced that the number of hens used for the maintenance of poultry red mites could be reduced by 90% per year. In addition, welfare standards will be increased by removing the need for hens to be continuously infested with the parasites for prolonged periods.

Dr Francesca Nunn, commented:“This is an exciting project that not only has the potential to seriously reduce the numbers of experimental hens use in poultry red mite colony maintenance, but also increase our understanding of the feeding behaviour and population dynamics that will be greatly useful in future control strategies against this important parasite.”

Head of Vaccine and Diagnostic development and Principal Investigator of the study, Dr Alasdair Nisbet, concluded: “I’m delighted to be able to continue our work on reducing the numbers of hens used for poultry red mite research and refining our approaches in this area in partnership with the NC3Rs. We look forward to another three years of a high level of impact in these areas.”