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Saturday, 7 September 2013

Maronesa - a relict breed from Portugal


By “relict” I of course do not mean this breed is a surviving aurochs population. But Maronesa is one of the very few remaining cattle breeds that resemble the aurochs overall to a large extent in overall appearance, apart from their size.

Maronesa was and is used as a draft breed and their range is centred around the North of Portugal. This breed usually is raised in the upland regions and live freely most the time of the year. They are used to heavy raining and snowfall, and even are known to fight of wolves and defending their calves.
Some genetic studies find it to be well-differentiated among Iberian breeds [1], but they also show striking phenotypic similarities to Auroquesa, Barrosa/Cachena and some other Northern Portuguese cattle breeds. These similarities concern f.e. horn shape, face shape and overall appearance, but Maronesa has a much more Aurochs-like coat than the other breeds.

Well-marked sexual dimorphism
In fact, Maronesa is one of the very few breeds that still exhibit a nearly correct aurochs coat colour: the bulls are dark brown to black with a lightly coloured eel stripe, the cows are reddish brown and darker on neck, head, tail and anterior side of the legs. Both sexes show a clear mealy mouth and the colour of the very curly hair between the horns of bulls varies between orange, reddish brown to black. However, some Maronesa bulls have a reduced or lacking eel stripe, and some Maronesa cows also are coloured dark brown, in rare cases black; this is an unpleasant effect of breeders selecting against sexual dimorphism in colour. For some reason, many Iberian breeders apparently dislike the original sexual dimorphism of cattle and if this selection process isn’t counteracted by a program to conserve the primitive lineages of this breed, future Maronesa might get as uniformly dark or black as Sayaguesa.

This is what I imagine the curly hair between the aurochs' horns to look like
Bull with perfectly aurochs-like horns, albeit oriented too low
The horns of Maronesa are about the same size as in the aurochs, perhaps slightly smaller. The curvature resembles those of the aurochs almost perfectly in many bulls and also some cows, albeit being some 15-20° (just an estimation of mine) lower than in the average archetype. While some bulls have rather thick horns, the horns of most cows unfortunately are not as thick as in the aurochs, and the tips curve outwards in many cases, similar to a corkscrew. Nevertheless, individuals with inwards-facing horns of the breed surely are very helpful for effigy breeding.

Cow with inwards-facing horn tips
Cow with outwards-facing horn tips
Large bull with thick horns, short skull
Maronesa have, as do the possibly related breeds Barrosa and Arouquesa, a comparably short and concave skull, bulls in particular. Maronesa has a clear hump in many individuals (again, bulls in particular), though this hump is not quite as tall as in the Spanish fighting bull; some cows have a really athletic body, while the bulls tend to be not as high-legged. But in general Maronesa are more athletic than most Heck cattle, especially when kept under semi-natural conditions and when they are not fattened.
This breed is variable in size, but most individuals are not very big. Some are even as small as Highland cattle. Therefore, the size is something that has to be considered when choosing Maronesa for an effigy breeding program. However, some individuals still grow comparably big, and one bull which’s semen is used in Tauros Project allegedly reaches almost 160 cm at the shoulders.

Very aurochs-like cow in Faia Brava: proportions, colour and body shape look perfect to me.
If the horns were larger, more upwards- and inwards-facing and the skull more elongated (and probably the body size larger), that cow would look perfectly like an Aurochs to me
All in all, Maronesa probably is one of the most aurochs-like breeds in Europe thanks to its colour, horn shape (and also horn dimensions) and also proportions (at least in cows, the bulls are not that long-legged). The curly hair between the horns gives them a particularly wild appearance. Disadvantages of this breed are the mostly small size and the short snouts. The fact that their horns are very low is advantageous when crossing with breeds with very upright horns (mostly Steppe cattle).
Maronesa is a breed that has proven to survive well in the wild of Portugal, and is resistant to heavy rainfall and snow. And they are known to fight off wolves. A selection of good In my opinion, Maronesa is at least as desirable for rewilding as good Heck cattle, especially when supplemented with another breed that adds what is lacking in Maronesa. Maremmana for instance would improve the size, head shape and also result in more upright horns within the aurochs’ variation range. Add a bit Chianina and select carefully, and you get a very good stand-in for the aurochs.

Cows in the Netherlands, used in Tauros Project
Tauros Project has a herd of nice Maronesa in the Netherlands and is producing Maremmana x Maronesa crossbreeds at the moment. Let’s see what will come out of it, it will certainly bring interesting results. The Faia Brava reserve also has a herd of slender Maronesa that were released last year, and they will also be combined with other breeds. The herd did very well with the rough conditions in the reserve last year.

Here you have some nice videos of that breed (I would insert the videos themselves, but blogger doesn't find them): 


Literature

[1] Catarina Ginja et a.: Y chromosome haplotype analysis in Portuguese cattle breeds using SNPs and STRs. 2009.

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