Sunday, 25 August 2013

5 myths about Heck cattle

There are quite a lot “myths” (common misconceptions or wrong statements) about Heck cattle around that are constantly repeated in media articles and other sources. One of these myths (the S. fighting bull as an ancestral breed of Heck cattle) has already been dismantled in this post. Today I want to list some other examples of common misconceptions about this cattle breed that usually lead to the picture of Heck cattle being the best or only aurochs substitute. It is not my intention to badmouth Heck cattle nor to discredit fanciers of the breed, but simply to bring this subject to a more objective and open level in order to give other aurochs-like breeds a better chance to get involved in breeding back and rewilding.

"Heck cattle is the most aurochs-like cattle and resembles the aurochs to a large extent"

Well, where should I start? As I discussed in this post, Heck cattle is a very heterogeneous population and therefore the authenticity of the animals depends on the herd you are looking at. But as a whole, there are some considerable phenotypic differences between this breed and the aurochs. First of all, Heck cattle in general have a way smaller but longer body than the aurochs, are less athletic and have a domestic body, the head is smaller and shorter and so on. Horn shape and colour are very variable, in some individuals they match up very well with the aurochs, in others not.
There is a large number of “primitive” breeds from Southern Europe and other regions which resemble the aurochs just as well as many Heck herds, or even better. Usually they are more stable, so it’s easier to judge which features are present and which are not. Most of them have a better body shape and better proportions than Heck, but also many of them lack the large horn dimensions (but those aren’t that big in many Heck cattle too). Many primitive breeds have a very aurochs-like colour with minor differences like bulls having a saddle, black cows or lacking eel stripes, but the colour rarely is perfect in Heck cattle as well.
So I would say again that Heck cattle is surely different from the aurochs in appearance, often to a large extent, and it is surely not the most-aurochs like cattle breed of all because there are many breeds that are about as aurochs like. Check this post for some examples.

"Heck cattle itself is a breeding-back project"

While modern Heck cattle obviously is the result of a breeding-back attempt, it is no project on its own. It should be seen as a “normal” cattle breed that is found on farms, in zoos and grazing projects – like some other breeds. However, it is true that many breeders select for certain features to a certain extent, but there is no centralized and coordinated guideline for the breed as a whole in neither country, therefore the quality of an Heck herd as an effigy breed depends on the work of the individual breeder. Some breeders tolerate many undesired features and/or do not care about the size or proportions of the cattle et cetera. That’s the reason why some Heck cattle herds can look quite good but others may bear almost no real resemblance to the aurochs.

"Heck cattle is more resistant to diseases than other cattle"

This is clearly a myth. It is true that Heck cattle is robust and resistant to many diseases found in very-derived dairy breeds, but so are other landraces. After all, Heck cattle is a mix of several landraces, therefore it is not surprising that it is just as robust to diseases as Highland cattle or Hungarian steppe cattle from which it descended. And, more importantly, Heck cattle do get infected by diseases that all cattle have, such as Bovine herpesvirus 1 and Mucosal disease.

"Heck cattle behave wilder than usual cattle"

Cattle that live under natural or semi-natural conditions for a considerable time get less docile and shier and therefore more difficult to handle. This is true of Heck cattle in grazing projects just like of other breeds under such conditions. In a zoo, you will encounter mostly tame and friendly Heck cattle. But of course cows having a calf have a strong protective instinct and will get aggressive when they think their calf is in danger; there are many incidents that show that is true of all cattle breeds. All in all, the behaviour of Heck cattle is like that of any other domestic breed and therefore also dependent of their environment.

"Heck cattle live under wild conditions and have proven to be robust and hardy "

In fact Heck cattle live nowhere truly in the wild. The only environment with barely any human influence is Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. We do not need to discuss that farms and zoos are not natural environments that lead to natural selection or require animals that are exceptionally hardy and robust. Grazing projects, where the animals live on a large area freely all the year round can be called semi-natural, but the cattle always have medical care and supplementary food if the area is not large enough. Actually Heck cattle live under very similar conditions as thousands of cattle in less industrialized regions, f.e. on the Iberian peninsular. The primitive Iberian landraces (and those from other parts of the world) have been living under these conditions for centuries and probably even longer, so the claim that Heck cattle is the only breed dealing with harsh conditions is absolutely baseless (especially when considering feral cattle from around the world). And, not to forget, other robust landraces do just as well in grazing projects (I intended to list them here but the list of cattle living under semi-natural conditions in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and other European countries is quite long). One should not underestimate the surviving capacities of modern cattle. 

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