There is so much I want to write about, and so little time for it. This time, I finally completed my post on one of the most primitive cattle breeds in the world: Toro de lidia, the Spanish fighting bull. Fighting with bulls, as abominable as it is, has a long history in Southern Europe. Back in the antiquary, even wild aurochs bulls were used for arena fights in ancient Rome. It were always the most aggressive bulls that were chosen for bullfighting, and during the 18th century, systematic breeding with domestic bulls from various cattle populations that showed the feistiest behaviour was started in order to breed a cattle race used virtually exclusively for bullfighting. Today these cattle are known as Lidia or Toro de Lidia, the Spanish fighting bull. Because Lidia were selected primarily on their fighting spirit and originate from various cattle populations, it is a variable breed – variable in appearance, size and behaviour – and is divided into several lineages: Miura, Casta Navarra, Cabrera, Galardo and others. These lineages are reproductively isolated from each other, but taking Lidia as a whole, it is a genetically diverse breed. It is likely that the breed also has influence from African cattle .
What makes the fighting bull special? First of all, it is the only (non-feral) cattle breed that was not selected for meat or milk production, but for agility and feistiness. It is well-known that they range freely all the year round and the fact that bulls that win fights with other bulls are chosen as breeding bulls – a kind of man-made natural selection – helped to retain primitive traits that are not apparent in many other breeds. Fanciers of the breed claim it is the most aurochs-like cattle around today and also Cis van Vuure, author of themost comprehensive book on the aurochs up-to-date, is very enthusiastic about Lidia.
|Lidia - the cattle breed with the most aurochs-like, muscular body|
Lidia is remarkable for being the only domestic cattle breed in the world that has retained a very aurochs-like body conformation. It is true that the proportions are variable, some bulls are longish while others have a short trunk like in the aurochs, but nearly all of them have a very muscular body with a large shoulder hump. This hump (not to be confused with the fleshy hump of zebus or with the neck crest) is formed by tall processus spinosi at the shoulder area and large muscles like the M. trapezius attach to it. This is a skeletal trait and therefore coded genetically and not influenced by how you raise the cattle. Both bulls and cows have it, and it seems to be as prominent as in the aurochs; this is unique among most domestic cattle and a big plus for the Lidia breed. The waist is usually very slender (though not in all individuals), similar to wild bovines of similar build like Wisents and bison. Most Lidia bulls that we see are subadult, bulls get continuously more massive after their 6th year. Nevertheless, Lidia is still the most athletic cattle breed. The legs in fighting cattle tend to be a little shorter than in the aurochs, but some examples have just perfect proportions.
|Well-proportioned athletic Lidia bulls|
|Lidia cow with correct coat colour and horn curvature|
Lidia is one of the few large-headed cattle breeds and many have a really elongated skull shape. The frontals are long, the nasals are long, and the eye sockets are prominent. The head profile is either straight or more or less concave. Also Lidia has prominent curly hair between the horns, giving them the fierce appearance that is described for the aurochs . If you want to know what a living aurochs looked like regarding body shape, proportions and head shape, some Lidia give you a perfectly accurate impression. The horns usually are medium-sized and nearly always direct forwards. The horn shape does either roughly or very closely resemble that of the aurochs, depending on the individual.
Unfortunately, Lidia is very variable concerning the coat colour and has many colour mutations that are undesirable for breeding-back. Many Lidia have the black allele Ed instead of the wild-type colour allele E+, resulting in a totally black colour in bulls, cows and calves (however, this allele is dominant and therefore easy to breed out). Additionally to that, many Lidia also carry genes for white spotting, resulting in a “Holstein colour”. You also find brindle and roan animals. Nevertheless, there are still enough wild-coloured Lidia and since wild-type colour is recessive under black, it should be relatively easy to fix. Then the next task would be to breed for a more-marked colour dimorphism since many wild type coloured Lidia bulls show the reddish colour of cows.
Some examples of domestic-coloured Lidia…
|Roan coloured bull|
|Brindled bull (very good body shape though)|
… and wild-type coloured Lidia.
|Wildtype coloured Lidia cows|
|Wildtype coloured bull (the saddle shouldn't be present in the aurochs)|
Another “problem” concerning the phenotype of Lidia is their small size. Spanish fighting bulls are bred for being small so that they are easier to fight with, and their current shoulder height varies from 110 to 140 cm, depending on the lineage, which is very small even considering that Southern European aurochs likely were slightly smaller than those in central and northern Europe. The relatively large bulls that sometimes do appear in the breed are usually selected out.
The udder size is varying, in some cows it is almost invisible from the side, as in wild bovines. The dewlap is either small or medium-sized.
The behaviour of Lidia is controversial in breeding-back. While the one side appreciates their deer-like shyness and agility, the other side criticises their high aggression when surprised or unable to flee. We know that it is possible to select on behavioural traits and those are laid down in the genome to a certain degree . Both cows and bulls of the Lidia breed have been screened and selected on their fighting spirit for centuries, what certainly augmented their level of aggression and nervousness. But does that mean we have to exclude them categorically from breeding-back? In my opinion, not at all. First of all, if we describe the behaviour of Lidia as “unnatural”, we also have to attribute that to all gentle and docile breeds, because these are certainly no traits of wild bovines. Secondly, if you can select for a trait, you can also select against it. In fact, there are always Lidia bulls that get culled because they do not show enough aggressiveness for bullfighting. Certainly, very shy and aggressive cattle can be very difficult to handle, at least in grazing projects where most of the breeding-back takes place. Therefore, it is also of practical use to chose the less-aggressive Lidia for an aurochs project that is centred around this breed.
Of course it’s time for my standard sentence now: Lidia is a very hardy breed that is used to poor foliage, lives freely all the year round and is used to all kinds of weather and so on. Like virtually all primitive Iberian cattle. But what is interesting is what I have been told by the ABU breeders: the only cattle that never seized the supplementary food in the Lippeaue during winter were Lidia cows. Perhaps they are, thanks to their semi-feral history, even more hardy than Sayaguesa or Heck cattle.
Lidia is one of the very, very few domestic cattle that are known to defend themselves successfully from – no, not just wolves – big cats. Fighting bulls defeated even lions in arena fights of the past , which is very impressing.
|Correct colour, athletic body|
In essence, I think the Spanish fighting bull is a precious breed for breeding-back. Their athletic body and high shoulder spines (“hump”) in combination with their aurochs-like proportions makes less-derived Lidia unique among (non-feral) domestic cattle. Their long snout is certainly very desirable as well. Some good Lidia individuals are more aurochs-like even than very aurochs-like breeds like Maronesa or Sayaguesa (or good Hecks), apart from their size. Since the global Lidia population contains almost all of the desired aurochs features, a project using only Spanish fighting cattle could bring interesting results. The idea for such a project was brought up first by Cis van Vuure in an article from 2003, and proposed by the same author again in 2005 . The high number of aurochs features in Lidia, as much as their unique breeding history, makes it unlikely for me that their primitive phenotype is just a by-product of coincidental crossbreedings, very likely it is truly an ancient breed (I am looking forward until something on the genetic relationship to other cattle breeds and the aurochs is published) and therefore worth to play an important role in another breeding-back attempt. Their behavioural minus point – which is mainly a practical one because we don’t know the aggression level of the wild aurochs – probably can be reduced by selection and/or crossing-in of more docile breeds. Their long history of living nearly feral (ok, this is also true for other primitive breeds) and their ability to defend against predators also makes them very suitable for the creation of a new wild bovine.
For such a project, it would be wise to pick the largest and least-aggressive Lidia with wild colour, good horns and aurochs-like proportions. In order to gain a sufficient genetic diversity, not only dozens of individuals but also of various lineages should be chosen. They should be selected for:
- Well marked colour dimorphism
- Wild colour with eel stripe (in bulls) and mealy mouth
- Short trunk, long legs
- Elongated skull shape
- Correctly curved, large-sized horns
- Large body size
- Less aggressiveness/nervousness
Perhaps after few generations already, a Lidia strain that looks and behaves almost like the aurochs would be established – but these Lidia primitivo (as I like to call this hypothetic breed, a hint to how Tauros Project calls the most-primitive Maremmana cattle) would still be much too small (probably about as small as Heck cattle) and their horn dimensions would probably not be really satisfying either. Supplementing them with Chianina to add size and leg length and a breed to add good horn dimensions without ruining the curvature (perhaps very large-horned Heck cattle or Watussi with useful horns) would insert these features into the population.
The time for such a project would be right – bullfighting is getting less popular and hopefully it will be prohibited in the near future. But the end of bullfighting also means the end of the fighting bull. Already today many Lidia show clear signs of intermixing with derived breeds to increase their economic productivity, resulting in a loss of aurochs-like features. It would be a big shame if the last primitive Lidia would diminish without being used in breeding-back, since no other breed contributes such an athletic, aurochs-like body shape and overall appearance. Lidia definitely has negative aspects as well (like any breed), but those could be reduced by selection.
A Lidia project would hopefully be fruitful within few years, it would save the most precious examples of that breed and unite their aurochs-like traits. It is also a perspective for animal welfare, because it provides a new future for the fighting bull: buying and collecting several dozens of fighting cattle (such numbers are necessary to build up a sufficient gene pool) and giving them a new and good future living in reserves and dying a natural death must sound appealing!
 Cortes et al. 2011: Y chromosome genetic diversity in the Lidia bovine breed: a highly fragmented population
 van Vuure, Cis: Retracing the Aurochs - History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. 2005.
 Broucek et al. 2008: Genetics of behaviour in cattle.