I already gave some basic information on the Taurus cattle in Hungary in this post, but in the lack of recent photos showing what the current population looks like and without more background information I didn’t have much to say. However, about three weeks ago, I contacted Claudia Zimmermann and István Sándor who are directly involved in the grazing project in the National park Hortobagy, where the Taurus cattle are bred. They provided me with very helpful information and a lot of beautiful photos, and I got permission to use them for the blog and Wikipedia. Many thanks!
The grazing project was started with Przewalski horses in 1997, for which the Puszta surely is an ideal habitat. Now they number about 250 individuals. One year later cattle were released, mostly Heck cattle from Austria (more on Austrian Heck cattle in a future post), and Germany f.e. Lippeaue, Wörth and Munich but also Neuwied and Karlsruhe. Steppe cattle and Steppe cattle x Holstein were added because a large number of cattle was needed for the large area of about 2500 ha (little less than half the Oostvaardersplassen). The total number of the cattle currently is higher than 150, making it the largest population in a grazing project and probably one of the largest herds of aurochs-like cattle of that quality in Europe.
I was told that several bloodlines within the herd can be distinguished that are respectively influenced by the following breeds: Watussi, Taurus/Sayaguesa, Heck, Grey cattle and Holstein. As far as I know, there are Lidia-influenced individuals as well. I suppose that these bloodlines are not strictly separated and that the population is basically panmictic.
The horns of this Watussi-influenced cow may not be that thick, but it might carry the genes for larger horns and there must be Watussi-crosses with larger horns as well. I think this cow might be influenced by Sayaguesa as well. What I find particularly interesting is the strong wine red Watussi seems to add. Watussi is advantageous for its large horns and their adaption to dry habitats. Using Watussi is often criticised because of their half-zebuine nature, but Steppe-type cattle are massively zebu-influenced as well and yet they were and are part of each aurochs effigy project.
The bull above is called Rimu (Grey x Watussi) x (Sayaguesa x Heck). He’s one of the largest bulls. The horns are quite impressive and the colour is accurate, but his trunk is rather long and the hump small. Would be interesting to see more results of such a combination.
The Holstein-influenced bull down below is called Zeusz, I think he has a quite cool aspect:
The use of Holstein seems counteracting at first, but it depends on how you select the offspring. The Holstein crosses tend to result in rather large and long-legged animals. Both the black colour and the spots of Holstein are dominant, so it shouldn’t be all too difficult to select those traits out.
Now some classic Taurus individuals:
Toldi and Szepes are fullblood brothers (75% Heck, 25% Sayaguesa). Toldi unfortunately was slaughtered before reproduced because of his temperament, but Szepes is a breeding bull and looks pretty good in my opinion (look at all the birds flying around him on the photos, like in Europe's old days!).
I suspect this bull has Lidia in its ancestry:
There is a number of un-crossed Heck cattle in Hortobagy as well, including a bull from the Insel Wörth herd. That bull is called “Anno” and used as a breeding-bull.
The Heck x Gray cattle hybrids are hard to distinguish from usual, not-well selected Heck cattle (which are grossly influenced by Gray cattle anyway):
Phenotypically they consequently are not convincing to me, but I think steppe cattle is advantageous because it is a local landrace that is adapted to the Puszta, improving the cattle’s suitability to the region. Furthermore, they are needed to build up the quantity necessary for the ecologic landscaping. But of course Gray cattle enlarges the portion of individuals having the dilution alleles that cause the beige and gray colours we see in usual Heck cattle.
This cow is an interesting animal:
What looks like a usual Heck cow here is in fact a first-generation crossbreed of Holstein x Gray cattle. I puzzled around a bit why this combination resulted in an accurate aurochs colouration. Grey cattle is homozygous for E+, wildtype base colour, while Holstein has Ed, black, which is dominant – so the cow actually should be black. But perhaps the Holstein parent was E+//Ed and passed on the wildtype allele. Grey cattle have a dilutor allele on their Agouti locus (at least), resulting in their fawn colour, but perhaps Holstein has the wildtype alleles allowing the production of red melanin, hidden under their solid black colour. This is the only way I can explain this outcome.
Like the Tauros Project would say, there has been a “breeding for quantity” phase, and now the “breeding for quality” phase is about to start. They have a large population, but numerous individuals do not show a satisfying phenotype yet. So they want to produce a large number of young bulls and select the best ones to increase the aurochs-likeness of the whole population. The selective process runs under the goal of producing a complete aurochs effigy, and when I look at the individuals on these photos, I think this is definitely feasible. The largest bulls like Rimu and Zeusz measure up to 160 cm.
They have all the aurochs features the Lippeaue population has, plus large horns thanks to large-horned Hecks, Watussi and Grey cattle. Indeed their horns are obviously larger on average than those of German Taurus cattle. In the reserve they are going to select on hardiness and resistance to cold as well, so that the cattle do not need supplementary feeding. The Heck cattle, Sayaguesa and a whole range of other breeds proved that they cope very well with the circumstances of central and western Europe, but the Puszta is a particular challenge for the cattle because it is an exceptionally cold and dry area.
Previously, supplementary food was given because the cattle calved during winter as well, what is usually problematic for both cow and calf under natural circumstances. The reproductive cycle of cattle adapts to that if exposed to natural selection, but this is incompatible with the animal welfare for domestic animals (also in grazing projects). So they separate the bulls from the cows for a part of the year to prevent calves being born during winter for now, and also tend to select out cows that calf during this season to mimic the natural selection. 2011 was the first winter the cattle spent without supplementary food.
The cattle are legally classified as domestic animals, like in all other grazing projects, and therefore have to be checked for certain bovine diseases like all cattle in Europe (including those of Tauros Project or other grazing projects). I don’t know if it is legally possible to treat them fully as wild animals (perhaps an arrangement like in Oostvaardersplassen could be made), but I think it might certainly be possible to let them breed freely after a sufficient accuracy of the phenotype is reached. This would mean that we could expect similar phenotypic changes concerning proportions, body conformation and horn shape like in Oostvaardersplassen because of intraspecific fights (dominance of the cows, reproductive success of the bulls etc.).
It is really enchanting to see how really aurochs-like cattle are reconquering natural areas around whole Europe, not just less than mediocre Heck cattle in Zoos. I am talking about all those Taurus cattle, Tauros cattle in three, soon four, areas, and now also the Uruz Project. As a last photo, here is a herd of cows along some Prezwalski horses:
For the Taurus cattle at the Lippeaue, Germany, see here: