Honestly, there is something charming about Heck cattle. Their comparatively long and straight horns and the dark coat colour give them an ancient appearance, while their domestic body and the comparably small size makes us familiar with them at the same time. Because of its origin and the fact that other aurochs-like cattle were (until recently) virtually unknown in Central Europe, Heck cattle has a popular image of being a “recreated aurochs” or at least the most aurochs-like breed.
Surely Heck cattle is a very useful breed for conservational grazing projects and it certainly resembles the aurochs in some features, but how far does that similarity really go?
|These Heck cattle from Hessen might be representative for the average of the breed|
First of all, we have to find out what Heck cattle actually is. For this we have to look at the origin of this breed. It is well-known that Heck cattle was the result of the first breeding-back attempt, executed by the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, but most people have no clear idea of which breeds actually were the base for modern Heck cattle. When the Hecks started their experiment, they had some disadvantages because of the time they lived in. There were no good aurochs reconstructions to work on and didn’t do some themselves, so they had no precise picture of what the aurochs looked like. Their impression of the colour, body, and horns of the aurochs was only very vague . Furthermore, it was difficult to locate the most primitive cattle back this time, and they probably didn’t even know some of the most aurochs-like cattle. So it happened that their breed selection was far from ideal.
Heinz and Lutz executed their experiments separately and used a different set of breeds for their crossings. Fur us, Lutz’s stock is not that relevant because his cattle likely did not survive the Second World War and all modern Heck cattle descended from Heinz’s cattle in Munich (if they exchanged individuals and which ones remains unclear). This is a pity, since Lutz recognized the importance of southern European cattle for breeding-back, while Heinz included a number of very derived breeds. So the base of Heck cattle is [1,2]:
- Black-pied lowland cattle (similar to Holstein-Frisian, but smaller and stubbier)
- Angeln cattle
- Allgäuer (Braunvieh)
- Gray cattle
- Scottish Highland cattle
- Corsican Cattle
|Heck cattle in Ruhrgebiet, Germany|
It is impossible to say which cattle breeds had the largest influence on Heck cattle because Heinz ceased keeping track of the crossings after the first bull he considered a “new Aurochs” was born in 1932 (this individual was 75% Corsican, 17,5% Gray cattle and 17,5% a mix of Highland, Podolian Gray, Angeln and Black-pied Lowland cattle). In my opinion, Corsican cattle and Hungarian steppe cattle might be the most important founding breeds of Heck cattle, followed by the Scottish Highland and the Murnau-Werdenfelser. This assumption is based on the breed’s history and on the phenotype of contemporary Heck cattle. Some Corsican cows appear nearly identical to some Heck cows. From the modern view, Heinz Heck’s chosen breeds are far from ideal for breeding-back the appearance of the aurochs (hardiness and instincts are another story). Some important phenotypic features, such as large size, an athletic and slender body, long skull shape, or forwards-facing horns are simply missing in this selection, while the more derived breeds contributed a number of undesired and very domestic traits. But the experiment of the Hecks was only the start, the following decades of breeding were crucial to what Heck cattle is today.
|Heck cattle on http://www.artfarming.de|
As time went by, our knowledge about the aurochs increased; the years 1942 and 1955 saw the publication of the first realistic aurochs reconstruction on paper by K. L. Hartig and Wolf Herre pointed out important physical characteristics in a paper in 1953 (and criticized Heck cattle for being too domestic). Heck cattle that survived the war were spread around in German zoos. Unfortunately the breed’s quantity increased much faster than its quality, partly because people were unaware of what the aurochs really looked like and there were no central selection criteria that dictate which features are desired and which are not. As a result Heck cattle became a very heterogeneous breed that was and is selected by only very loose criteria instead of being the consequent and coordinated attempt to rebreed the phenotype of the aurochs. But let’s have a look at which primitive features are present in the Heck cattle population and which are not:
Heck cattle is 140-145 (bulls) and 130-135 cm (cows) tall at the shoulders on average. These numbers are my synthesis of data from Heck cattle from French reserves and German zoos, found in . The largest pure Heck cattle (that is, without influence of the so-called Taurus cattle) measure up to 160 cm at the shoulders [EDIT: 150 cm after Guintard]. I am referring to the Steinberg/Wörth lineage, which are larger than most usual Heck cattle [EDIT: 160cm for Wörth bulls is in fact a dubious statement]. Therefore, most Heck cattle are considerably smaller than the aurochs, which measured around 170 cm (bulls) and 150 cm (cows) [EDIT: This is an arithmetic mean. In fact it was dependent from region and time]. The small size of Heck cattle is due to the founding breeds, of which none was really large.
|Heck cattle in Bielefeld, Germany|
The colour of Heck cattle is very variable. The basic wild colour is present, but in the form of numerous deviations. You can find Heck bulls with a prominent saddle or lacking the eel stripe as much as you can find aurochs-coloured Heck bulls. The cows display a wide variety of colours, ranging from beige or grayish over the reddish-brown aurochs colour to dark brown or black. The cows are lighter than the bulls on average, but very dark cows are no rarity. Gray Heck cattle that look like Hungarian Steppe cattle can “pop out” on occasion. Some Heck cattle show white spots on the forehead or belly, some have completely piebald coat. Single individuals display the coat colour of Highland cattle. The mealy mouth is present in nearly all cases.
|Heck cattle in Dorsten, Germany. Interestingly, it does not display |
the wildtype colour but that of Highland and Angeln cattle instead
Body shape and proportions
The body shape of most Heck cattle is very similar to common dairy cattle and partly depends on the lifestyle of the cattle. In most cases the trunk is bulky and there is little to no hump (although some bulls have a shallow S-curve in their back). The leg length is variable, some Heck cattle have long legs that equal the trunk length but most of them have legs more or less shorter than the aurochs did. Some herds whose phenotype was abandoned are extremely short legged (f.e. in the German zoo Wildpark Frankfurt/Oder), but those are extreme cases. The head is comparably small like in most domestic cattle.
|Heck cattle in Chateau de Boutheon, France|
The skull shape of Heck cattle usually shows a typical paedomorphic condition, with a broadened forehead, a short muzzle and a profile that is either straight or concave, resulting in a calve-like face compared to what the skull of the aurochs looked like. This retention of juvenile characters is typical for domestic animals.
|Heck cattle in the Netherlands|
The horns of Heck cattle are extremely variable. Their size can either be very small and thin to very large and thick, but the majority of Heck cattle has horn dimensions smaller than in usual aurochs specimen. The orientation relative to the snout usually is too upright, ranging from 90-125° (this is a personal observation based on many Heck cattle individuals) compared to 50-70° in the aurochs. The actual curvature varies as well and differs from the aurochs in being curved too much outwards and upwards on average. In some cows the horns curve outwards instead inwards and create the lyre-shaped horn type of Gray cattle.
|Heck cattle at the Wildpark Schloss Tambach, Germany|
Udder and dewlap
The udders of Heck cows can be quite small in some cases, but many individuals have medium-sized to large udders. The dewlap is medium-sized in most Heck cattle, and therefore larger than in the aurochs.
|Heck cattle at Fröndenberg, Germany|
The fact that Heck cattle is a hardy breed without any significant sensitivity to certain diseases is well known. That is most likely due to the usage of robust landraces like Highland, Gray and Corsican cattle by the Heck brothers. Heck cattle are known to cope with the climate of central and northern Europe very well and flourished in Oostvaardersplassen without an supplementary food or medical care. Because of that, and the popularity of the breed, Heck cattle is common in conservational grazing projects in Germany, the Netherlands and also France. But we should keep in mind that these traits aren’t unique to Heck cattle at all. Hardiness and healthiness are common features of all landraces, and as we’ve learnt in the previous post, numerous cattle can survive absolutely abandoned in nature. Heck cattle are not the only cattle that are used successfully in conservational grazing projects in Central and Northern Europe; Hungarian Gray, Highland, Galloway, Tudanca, Sayaguesa, Maremmana cattle and several other breeds perform just as good.
|Heck cattle at the Wildpark Rheingönheim, Germany|
The behaviour of Heck cattle (or any cattle breed) depends on the way they are kept. The Heck brothers noted that their behaviour became increasingly “wild”, but this is due the fact that any cattle that lives without close contact to humans gets difficult to handle. There are also some rumours that Heck cattle is an aggressive breed. This is not true, most breeders confirm that it is in fact a docile breed.
All in all, it is clear that Heck cattle is not a resurrected aurochs (neither it shows an identical phenotype), but saying it’s a total flop would be unfair as well. After being researching Heck cattle intensively for two years now and having seen hundreds of photos, perhaps even more, and also visiting several herds personally, I have reached the conclusion that Heck cattle is a very heterogeneous population of cattle displaying a number of aurochs-like features, generally lacking others, and also displaying undesired features inherited from its founding breeds. It is only fair to say Heck cattle is one of several aurochs-like breeds. It differs from other aurochs-like breeds in its heterogeneity while the others usually are comparatively homogeneous, though. Although Heck cattle still is far away from being a successful effigy breed, there is potential in the modern Heck breed (especially since the creation of Taurus cattle) and we will look into that in future posts.
P.S.: As you see, I included a lot of photos from different locations in this post, to give a fair idea of what Heck cattle looks like. Finding the balance between aurochs-like individuals and not aurochs-like individuals wasn't easy. Individuals with Taurus influence were excluded, because this post is about "usual" Heck cattle.
-  van Vuure, Cis: Retracing the Aurochs - History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. 2005
-  Frisch, Walter: Der Auerochs – das europäische Rind. 2010.