Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Visiting Heck cattle at Wörth, Bavaria

As I pointed out in the previous post, Heck cattle is a very heterogeneous breed – some herds may have no resemblance to the aurochs at all, while others can have an overall appearance quite reminiscent of their wild ancestor. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit such a herd: the Heck cattle of the island Wörth in the Bavarian lake Staffelsee. This is certainly one of the most spectacular Heck cattle lineages, if not the most spectacular. I met with their owner Walter Frisch and his son Gregor Frisch, who established a quite stable breed through consequent selective breeding that is most notable for very large and aurochs-like horns. Down below, you see some photos that I took there. 

Cow "Erni", one of the most aurochs-like Wörth Heck cows
The history of this lineage. Walter Frisch started breeding Heck cattle in 1981 and composited his stock using individuals from the Zoo Hellabrunn in Munich and the Wildgehege Neandertal in North Rhine Westphalia. Those two lineages display an aurochs-like coat colour and usually have horns of usable size and curvature. The Neandertal lineage became an important breeding centre of Heck cattle after the Second World War and descends from a Watussi x Heck cattle cow born in the 1950ies. Watussi cattle is a half-zebuine and half-taurine breed with very large horns that is hardy and originated in Africa. Because the Neandertal lineage has horns of large sizes that (roughly) resemble those of the aurochs in curvature, and diverging coat colours had largely been purged out, it had considerable influence on many other Heck cattle herds. The Hellabrunn lineage has a very aurochs-like coat colour (but don’t get too euphoric about that, some Iberian breeds do that as well) and roughly usable horns, I might post some photos of the contemporary members of that herd soon.

The purpose of Mr. Frisch’s breeding was and is to achieve and stabilize an aurochs-like phenotype by selection and also inbreeding. His breed did not have influence of other herds during the last 20 years and displays horns much more aurochs-like than most other Heck cattle herds. With a shoulder height of 160 cm for adult bulls, the Wörth lineage also has the largest pure Heck cattle. Walter Frisch and his family started breeding in Steinberg, in 2005 the herd was moved to Wörth.

Bulls and cows from Wörth
 Evaluating the phenotype. Wörth Heck cattle have a wild type coat colour, but bulls tend to have a saddle in some cases and there are some pretty dark cows, varying from a bull’s colour to dark brown with a saddle and lightly brown. Basically, the cows have a lighter colour than the bulls. The breeders’ target for the bulls is a solid black and for the cows a dark brown with a light saddle on the back, and they select against cattle not fitting these criteria. I miss a bit of the reddish portion in the coat colour, though. Strongly deviant colours, such as a grayish or piebald coat, never showed up in this lineage.
The horns of the Wörth lineage are excellent overall. The angle between horns and snout usually varies between 90° and 70°, so they should face a slightly more forwards but that’s no major issue, and some cows like “Erni” do have horns facing more forwards. The curvature of the cows’ horns resembles that of the aurochs very closely, while the horns of bulls tend to be a bit too much outwards in my opinion. Horn length and thickness perfectly match the data for the aurochs’ horns – adult bulls have a horn span of 100 cm, their horns have a length of 90 cm and a circumference of up to 14 cm at the base. Although this kind of horns are stabilized in the herd, there are some individuals with diverging horns, some may have a slightly different curvature or small horns, but these individuals will be selected out. The skull of Wörth Heck cattle is slim in some cases, but IMO shorter and more paedomorphic than in the Aurochs. The members of the herd have longer legs than average Hecks, some also have a comparably short trunk resulting in the “aurochs condition” of trunk length and withers height equalling each other, but others also have slightly shorter legs than in the aurochs. Their body shape is, like in any cattle living freely all the year round, comparably slender, but still has a domestic condition in having a more or less bulky waist and virtually no “hump” in cows. However, some bulls of the Wörth lineage show a decently S-shaped back line and a little hump, unlike many other Heck bulls. The size of fully grown bulls is about 160 cm and cows vary between 140-160 cm, which is within the aurochs’ size range (UPDATE: I am a bit doubtful about these numbers today. If some individuals grow that large, they are certainly larger than those I saw there). The size of the dewlap and udder is variable.

Cow "Arizona", another very good cow
For comparison, I provide you with two aurochs reconstructions, which I think give an accurate impression of what the most Aurochs individuals looked like (with subtle variation in horn shape and colour, some cows might have been as dark as the Wörth cows): 

My reconstruction of the Cambridge specimen (cow). All rights reserved. 
Reconstruction of the Vig specimen (bull). © Thomas Hammond.
All in all, I was very happy with what I saw. Of course there are differences between the Wörth Heck’s phenotype and that of the aurochs, and of course some individuals can have deviant features (a problem common to all projects working with crossbreeds), but the similarities regarding the horns, size and colour are very pleasing. The overall condition of the horns is more primitive than in most other cattle on this world – some Iberian cattle might have a more aurochs-like curvature, and some Barrosa or Watussi might have horn dimensions just as good, but in Wörth Heck cattle both aspects resemble the desired wild bovine, and I don’t know anything to criticize about the horns of cows like “Erni” and others.
Cow "Erni" has perfectly aurochs-like horns
However, there are some features that I miss in this lineage, such as longer legs, a more athletic body shape, larger hump, longer skull, a stronger-marked sexual dimorphism and a stronger red in the coat colour of the cows and calves. A Sayaguesa crossbreed from the ABU might add that, but I don’t know if the breeders would like to include such a cow since the primary target for the Wörth lineage is to stabilize their features.

The herd. The Wörth herd currently is composed of 15 cows and 5 bulls plus a few calves. All of the bulls are quite young and they partly descend from the bull “Aretto”, a very important bull of that lineage that unfortunately passed away not long ago. I liked one of the bulls whose name is “Aribo” particularly, and if I remember correctly, he is designed to become Aretto’s successor as the new breeding bull on the island. There are two other bulls (which names I don’t know) with a saddle but mighty horns, and another one that happened to have more straight horns than the other bulls. None of the bulls was fully grown yet. Of the cows, I liked Erni and Arizona the most because of their horns and colour, but the others had a decent appearance as well.
The herd gets supplementary food during winter, because the island is simply too small to provide enough food for the herd all the year round. I was told that foxes can kill newborn calves on occasion.
"Erni" is a dauther of "Aretto"
Bull "Aribo", the new designed breeding bull on Wörth
The behaviour. The most important influence on the behaviour of cattle is the way the cattle is raised. Any cattle breed shows a “wilder” behaviour when living with little human contact compared to cattle that spend their lives in a barn and get touched by humans every day. The Heck cattle on Wörth would not appreciate to be touched, but they are absolutely not aggressive. Their behaviour is cautious and curious when people approach. They show a herding instinct and when one of the young bulls was anaesthetized, the other herd members were curious on what is going to happen to him.

The whole herd
My trip. I met with Walter Frisch and his son Gregor Frisch who own and manage the herd. I had the opportunity to not only take a lot of close-view shots but was also witness when a young bull was anaesthetized and moved into a transport box because that particular young bull is going to be the new breeding bull of this herd owned by Michael and Doris Mages, who were present as well. It was very interesting and enjoyable for me to discuss about Heck cattle and rebreeding the aurochs’ phenotype. Walter Frisch told me that he thinks consequent selection is the only way to turn Heck cattle into a stable and aurochs-like breed as a whole, and I completely agree.
Young cow that happened to have smaller horns
I can only recommend you Walter Frisch’s book DerAuerochs – Das europäische Rind, published in 2010. It gives a lot of detailed information on various aurochs remains and useful photos that are a big help for my reconstructions. You will find more information on the history of Heck cattle than in any other piece of literature, and also photos of the very first crosses by the Heck brothers and of course the Wörth lineage. It is extremely helpful for anyone interested in that subject. 

In my opinion, Walter and Gregor Frisch really deserve a lot of credit for their excellent breeding work. When comparing usual Heck cattle with individuals from the Wörth lineage, it becomes obvious that they did awesome work and careful selection, and I hope that the Wörth herd will play a crucial role in the future devolopment of Heck cattle as a whole.
Another cow
Similar herds. Because Wörth Heck cattle have the most impressive hors of all, many breeders are interested in animals from that herd, so that this lineage has an increasing influence on German Heck cattle (Aretto was moved to France before he died, let’s hope he left some traces there as well). The Neandertal lineage is similar but less stabilized, and in Bayerischer Wald you can find a Heck herd (also descending from the Neandertal Heck cattle) with similarly impressive horns, but they are less stable, have a less-marked sexual dimorphism and their body shape is not as slender.

Since I covered Heck cattle a lot here during the last two weeks, the next cattle posts will focus on the Tauros Programme and Iberian aurochs-like breeds.

If you want to see those photos and some more from Wörth in full size, you can visit my flickR album


  1. Hi,

    We're trying to recreate Aurochs in CGI for a historical programme we're making about Stonehenge for the BBC and are interested in filming graphic plates of Heck cattle to use as a base for our Aurochs. We are planning to be in Vienna later this year and also next year and are very interested in visiting any good sized herds in the area.

    I read your article with great interest and was hoping you may be able to put me in touch with Walter or his son Gregor? Likewise I'd love to hear from any other Heck Cattle owners.

    Sorry, realise this is a slightly strange request but any assistance would be very much appreciated. I may be contacted at or on +44 (0)207 284 6868.

    Best wishes,

    Kate Bullions

  2. whoah this blog is fantastic i like studying your posts.
    Sttay up the good work! You know, many individuals arre looking round for this info, you can aid them greatly.

  3. I was hoping to discover a correlation of my Bavarian lineage to my namesake !
    J. Bradley Heck