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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Highland cattle - good or bad for breeding-back the aurochs?


UPDATE: I changed my mind on the use of Highland in the Tauros Project, or at least the number of Highland crosses they use. Highland might make it difficult to achieve a good size and a slender, athletic body and long snouts, so that the advantage of using primitive breeds only would be gone. 

At first glance, Scottish Highland cattle has everything not desirable in breeding-back the aurochs: small and very bulky body, short legs, short and calf-like skulls, thin horns of various shapes, large udders, no wildtype colour and an unnaturally long coat that causes the cattle to have problems with the heat and felting during summer. But still, Highland cattle is one of the four important founding breeds of Heck cattle and is used in the first generations of the Tauros Programme. Why using this breed in breeding-back at all?

First of all, Highland cattle is a very cold-resistant breed that is used to masses of rain and snow. The dense, overlong hair in pure Highlands is problematic, but is certainly useful in compensating the coat of some Iberian breeds which might not be as long or dense as it is desired for herds in central or northern Europe. This is certainly advantageous.
Concerning their phenotype, many aspects are undesired of course. But in fact there is a number of Highlands that do show aurochs-like horns that face forwards-inwards and are quite thick:

 
© Martin Werker on flickR


Also, Highland cattle is known for its long curly hair between their horns, giving them their cute appearance. This is in fact another useful feature, because it helps to add the curly hair on the head that is applied to the aurochs in historic sources. This feature is present in Hungarian Steppe cattle, Heck cattle, Lidia, Maronesa and some Sayaguesa, but other breeds might need a bit of a “push” for that feature by Highland cattle.


More curly front head hair, please!

So Highland mainly has 3 useful features for breeding-back: good resistance to cold and humidity, good horns if the right individuals are chosen, and long and curly hair between the horns. However, considering the amount of negative features in the breed, Highland cattle should only be used very carefully. Highland contributed many of the undesired traits in Heck cattle that we still see today (because of inconsequent selection). The Tauros Programme is aware of the fact that too much Highland can lead to “Heck cattle 2.0”, therefore this breed is used only in the first cross generations.

And how did they work out? Tauros Project has several Maremmana x Highland crossbreeds that all look interesting. Some of them seem to be coloured red, which is surprising because red is supposed to be recessive under wild-type colour. Many of them show the brindle pattern, which is dominant in wild-type coloured animals and therefore easy to select out. The horns of the crosses are quite upright and straight, but really huge in some individuals (especially some of the bulls, of which no pictures are online). The body is either bulky or longlegged, depending on the individual.

The cross cows at Kempen~Broek have been covered by a Sayaguesa bull, and the calves should be about one year old or so. I don’t have high-resoluted up-to-date photos of these F2 crosses, but judging from what I have seen so far, about the half of them has a good wild colour (which is accordant to the 2. Mendelian rule), although the dimorphism is much reduced (Sayaguesa influence). Let’s see what their offspring will look like. 

(Maremmana x Highland) x Sayaguesa young bull; zoom from  http://weertnatuur.blogspot.co.at



11 comments:

  1. http://www.amnwr.com/2007/Sanak/Cattle/index.html#Cattle070328-15

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    1. Dammit, this is excellent. Another example that thriving freely leads to cattle developing more aurochs-like features. I'll include that in a future post, thank you for pointing that out to me!

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  2. Keep in mind that these cattle on Sanak have been feral for a similar length of time to Oostvaardersplasm. It looks to me like horn shape has improved and highland genetics is dominant in the population. http://www.amnwr.com/Chirikof/index2.html, Contrast with these animals from Chirikof which may seem even less special, but which have been feral on and off since the 1800's. Some good horn orientation but the horns are small and they really look like ordinary range cattle. Contrasted with photos from Oostvaardersplassen the phenotype is not great. Obviously founding population is extremely important to feral cattle phenotype even after a long time. Variability also may not be bad, it gives natural selection something to work on. However the genotype is where the story on Chirikof gets really interesting. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/ar/archive/sep08/cattle0908.pdf I cannot find pictures of cattle from most of the other Aleutian island herds. Two islands have active ranches which seem to have fairly ordinary beef cattle influenced by Hereford and Angus genetics strongly. Public comments are being accepted for the Chirikof herd for a few more days.

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    1. I don't want to give away to much of my next posts on dedomestication in cattle, but variability is the most important aspect for the time it takes until aurochs-like features emerge or get fixed. The more variable the population, the less time it takes. And the OVP starting population was very variable and a mix of many different breeds, and on average, definitely more aurochs-like than those on Chirikof. So it's actually to be expected that the OVP population achieves aurochs-like features faster than the Chirikiof population. Apart from that, I don't really agree with you that the cattle look ordinary. Their body is thight and muscular, the trunk ribcage is deep and the waist is slender and the horns are, despite being small and upright, facing inwards very decently. Therefore, the phenotypic adaption that is allowed by the makeup of their founding population has taken place. The colour didn't get aurochs-like because these colours apparently were not present in the founding population. In sum, these cattle definitely do look "wilder" than their founding breeds.

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    2. Interestingly Jersey and Yakut cattle may both have been in the founding population on Chirikof so wild type coloration may have once or still be in the population.


      http://www.uaf.edu/files/snras/Publications/Cronin/11%20MacNeil%20et%20al%202007%20An%20Genetics%20ChirikofIslandcattle.pdf

      "The
      level of heterozygosity of the Chirikof Island cattle is
      comparable with, or less than, that observed in most
      breeds"- quote from above linked article, agrees with your assertion that the adaptation which could be achieved from the genes available was achieved. Now genetic drift, natural, and artificial selection has fixed what is there.

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  3. There is another population I find interesting near Las Vegas, Nevada. Apparently a melon grower and rancher named Bundy released some cows on to public land because as an early settler he feels he should have some kind of grazing right despite the fact that his permits were revoked almost 20 years ago. It is unclear to what extent he is managing his herd but they are sometimes described as feral. I saw some of the animals while I was working in the Gold Butte area and their were about 5 bulls and 1 cow in the groups I saw. The bulls all had horns, they had a good crest or hump. I took some photos. They mostly looked like an Angus and Hereford mix with some Brahma. I suspect the dominant polled gene from Angus would be strongly selected against.

    http://bundyranch.blogspot.com/p/pictures.html

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    1. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10200250261758091&set=a.10200247421847095.1073741825.1199324726&type=3&theater

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  4. Keep the cows simple, size for ecology not so important. Got a Highland cow, breed it to Bazadaise. Breed for color and horn shape and there you are a new aurochs for ecology.Little secrets shared from Blue Ox Farms, Mn. USA

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    1. I don't like that ecology-zentrism. One could also say all the other attributes are not that important for ecology and just release any hardy cattle into the wild, but that is not what this blog is about. I also dislike seeing any species to be reintroduced merely as an ecologic tool. Furthermore, it is not true that "optic" traits are not important for a species in the wild.

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