Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sayaguesa are awesome

Sayaguesa is a breed from the Spanish province of Zamora in the northwest of Spain, and it preserves a number of features that make it very useful for breeding back. There are about 640 individuals of this endangered breed. It’s a large breed with cows reaching 145-150 and bulls reaching 150-165 cm at the shoulders (these numbers are based on several measurements I found in the web, and also personal information). One of the Sayaguesa cows I saw at the Lippeaue, Germany, was a really large one. Her head alone might have been 50 cm long.

Besides the size, the long-legged body of Sayaguesa, especially in the cows, produces useful crosses. Although the body is not as athletic as in the Spanish Fighting bull, many Sayaguesa still have a comparably muscular and slender body and also a decent hump at the shoulders (this feature is very prominent in some individuals).

Sayaguesa cow of the Tauros Program with a very large hump
Typical Sayaguesa cow in the Lippeaue
Sayaguesa is one of the few breeds that retained a really long skull, especially in cows. In the Lippeaue, I saw a skull of a Sayaguesa cow, and although there’s still some decaying flesh on it, you can see the basic shape of that skull on the photo. It matches up quite well with some aurochs skulls, except that the frontal bones are not as elongated (probably because it is not as large-horned).

Sayaguesa cow skull in the Lippeaue 
Sayaguesa basically have a correct Aurochs colour, but the sexual dimorphism sadly is very reduced because the Spanish breeders select against it. Consequently, many Sayaguesa cows have a bull coat colour. And selection for a totally black colour also reduced the wild markings in some bulls, such as the mealy mouth and eel stripe. But luckily there are still examples of “correctly” coloured Sayaguesa, even very reddish cows that display the typical sexual dimorphism of wild cattle.

Aurochs-coloured bull of Tauros Project
Red Sayaguesa cows in the Lippeaue (those with red ear marks)
The colour of Sayaguesa has proven to be very useful in crossbreeding. In bulls, Sayaguesa results in a beautiful deep black colour with an eel stripe, even if the father was lightly coloured. Female offspring, on the other hand, usually is coloured reddish brown when crossed with lightly coloured cattle, as the crosses with Alistana-Sanabresa (Tauros Programme) and half-Chianina (Taurus cattle) have shown. Unfortunately, some Sayaguesa have white spots on the belly because of the crossing with more-derived breeds in order to improve it as economic cattle.

75% Sayaguesa, 25% Alistana-Sanabresa (Tauros Project)

75% Sayaguesa, 12,5% Heck, 12,5% Chianina (Taurus cattle)

The horns of Sayaguesa can either be useful or problematic for breeding-back. They are usually medium-sized, and oriented forwards. Many cows have horn tips curving outwards, like in many Iberian breeds. Some individuals, on the other hand, have horns curving inwards as in the Aurochs, f.e. one of the cows I photographed at the Lippeaue. Others are intermediate.

Sayaguesa cow with well-shaped horns (Lippeaue)
And of course Sayaguesa is hardy, used to poor forage and does very well in the winters of Germany and the Netherlands. So do all other hardy Iberian breeds, there is no reason to assume that southern-European primitive breeds would not do well in Central and Northern Europe.

All in all, Sayaguesa is a very useful breed for breeding-back. It’s large, has long legs, a well-pronounced S-curved back, a long and straight skull and a colour that isn’t perfect but can result in correct offspring when crossed properly. The quality of that breed has been proven by many crosses of Taurus and also Tauros. That’s why this breed is used in Taurus cattle and Tauros Programme to a large extent, it certainly is a very aurochs-like breed. Sayaguesa also is used in grazing projects in the Netherlands independently from Tauros Project, in areas such as Planken Wambuis and in the Veluwe (alongside Tudanca).
The sad aspect is that many breeders in Spain select against wild type features, what means that breeding-back should collect the remaining good individuals of that breed. In my opinion, starting herds with some very good Sayaguesa and supplementing them with individuals from other breeds could result in a very aurochs-like improved Sayaguesa lineages that are fit for being released as Aurochs proxies. The Tauros Programme wants to set up a herd of Sayaguesa cows in Spain that will be covered by a good Maremmana primitivo bull. After adding further breeds and some selection, the results might resemble the aurochs very well already.

Here is a video of Sayaguesa in the Netherlands, part of the Tauros Project:


  1. Those breed has a long snout. The Alentejana breed also has a very long snout.

  2. There is in Spain another cattle also very similar to the old auroch -uro or bos primigenius- called "Alistano Sanabresa". The two breeds are in inminent risk of dissappear