Sunday, 8 June 2014

Missed chances and bad luck in the history of Heck cattle

The history of Heck cattle mainly is a history of bad luck from a breeding-back point of view – actually bad luck is not exactly the right word for it, because it is mainly the result of people’s actions and not exclusively coincidences. This post is not meant to attack these people, not at all, I just want to unemotionally describe what I think went wrong in the creation of modern Heck cattle as an aurochs look-alike and how it might have been made better.

The Heck brothers’ project

The methodology of the Heck brothers was reviewed by Cis van Vuure in his 2005 book (Retracing the aurochs, Pensoft publishers, 2005) already (I don’t agree with him on every aspect). However, I am going to list the main aspects of their project that went wrong and resulted in Heck cattle becoming as we know it.

1. Sloppy research on the aurochs
2. Insufficient choice of breeds
3. Lack of clear selection criteria and negligence of certain traits
4.The crossbreeding and genealogy of their cattle were not documented
5. Wrong assumptions on animal breeding

Except number 2 (the possibilities to track down primitive cattle back this time were much more difficult than today, especially when not knowing where to look for), all those errors are consequences of choices and actions of the Heck brothers, but this is not meant as critique. For some reason they used imprecise rock carvings and paintings as model for the aurochs’ horns instead of the numerous well-preserved skulls, they did not take care of the proportions, hump and skull shape visible on complete skeletons, nor did they notice the different body shape of domestic and wild cattle. The choice of breeds was insufficient because it lacked certain aurochs features, such as body size (which was simply neglected), horn size/shape, hump and skull shape. Would they have used Chianina, Watussi and an useful Iberian breed (which were known to the Heck brothers back this time) instead of all those derived breeds they included (f.e. blackpied cattle), the outcome would have been much more aurochs-like right from the beginning. And no, I am not neglecting hardiness here, because all of these cattle are healthy landraces and therefore the outcome would have been hardy anyway. The Heck’s choice of breeds also included a breeds that added nothing but undesired traits, such as Angeln or Black-pied lowland cattle (fat body, white spots, small horns). Remember that I am referring to those used by Heinz Heck exclusively, because the lost Berlin lineage is not relevant for modern Heck cattle. The Heck brothers neglected features such as body size, partly because they thought that by simply crossing primitive breeds more ancient features would emerge because of reuniting invisible traits, which obviously was not the case and is not supported by modern genetics (again, the Hecks are not necessarily to blame for that).
The Heck brothers did not keep track of the crosses they executed, at least not sufficiently and stopped totally during the 1930s. It would have been better if they set up a breeding book right from the beginning, documenting which animal descends from what other animal – in this case we would know the exact set of breeds used and complete genealogy of all living Heck cattle today. A major mistake was, apart from the sloppy research, not to set up a list of clear selection criteria. Their selective breeding and that of the subsequent owners of Heck cattle was and is only very vague and arbitrary. For example, they permitted animals with a greyish tone in their coat and lyre-like horns, although there is absolutely no hint that the aurochs possessed such traits. The degree of variability in the aurochs (and basically all wild animals) was and is greatly exaggerated, leading to the extremely heterogeneous breed we know today (I’m not saying an aurochs look-alike has to be 100% homogeneous).


Another case of bad luck was that the Berlin lineage was lost during WWII, because Lutz Heck used a slightly better set of breeds that was mainly based on Corsican, Lidia and Camargue and they were also released in a number of wild paddocks.
The surviving Heck cattle (~40 individuals) were spread among a number of German zoos and soon increased in quantity. However, Reinhard Dathe, a former manager of the Zoo at Eastern Berlin noted in 1980 that after the Second world war a number of zoos removed their cattle, leading to a decrease of quantity and quality of the stock (whatever he considered quality). What would have been needed at this stage to prevent phenotypic chaos are the aforementioned clear selection criteria, but also a coordinated breeding strategy that ensures that the respective herds get selected for one goal and also exchange individuals to achieve and maintain the desirable phenotype. But that didn’t happen, because most zoos that kept Heck cattle did not intend to optically reconstruct the aurochs or neither aware that these cattle aren’t yet, or simply thought they look ancient enough and that they are for display exclusively anyway. Again, this is not meant as critique. It is understandable that zoos did not care greatly about Heck cattle, because it is obvious that a crossbreed of domestic cattle cannot revive its wild type. Nevertheless, what happened was chaos; population increase, genetic drift every time new herds were formed and only loose selection resulted in herds that either showed more resemblance to one or two founding breeds (f.e. got very Steppe cattle-like) or simply all possible combinations of the features donated by the founding breeds, such as small and extremely shortlegged and massive Hecks that look like short-haired Highlands with aurochs colour, very short-or large-horned individuals, horn shapes of all kinds, colours of all kinds, proportions of all kinds, absent to even very prominent sexual dimorphism. Only few breeders, such as the Zoo Hellabrunn or the Wildgehege Neandertal created herds with a wholly aurochs-like coat colour and acceptable horns. The use of a Heck x Watussi cross cow in the Neandertal was a very wise decision to achieve the latter trait.

What could have been achieved

Considering that Heck cattle has a bulk of non-aurochs-like features and but also a number of unevenly distributed aurochs-like features in their gene pool, it is fun to speculate what is the maximum degree of similarity of the aurochs that could have been achieved with the breeds Heinz Heck worked with. So let’s assume Heck cattle was bred carefully and coordinated, and always with the objective of creating an accurate optic reconstruction of the aurochs since 1945 – without adding other breeds, so no Watussi and no Taurus cattle. How much resemblance would be possible with Heinz Heck’s cattle? Here’s a list of features that were present in the original population:

  • Aurochs-like colour with well-marked sexual dichromatism (Corsicana, Murnau-Werdenfelser)
  • More or less large but not all too thick horns (Hungarian Steppe, Highland)
  • Almost accurate horn curvature and a shallow hump (Corsicana, partly Highland)
  • Long legs, withers height/trunk length ratio 1:1 (Steppe cattle)
  • Small udder (Steppe cattle)
  • Body size probably 150 cm in bulls and 140 cm in cows

The drawing down below illustrates how I imagine a combination of these features with all the undesired traits bred out might have had looked like:
The difference between this, what Heck cattle should have been, and what most Heck cattle today look like is quite amazing, isn’t it? And if you consider that Taurus cattle and the large-horned Hecks descending from that half-Watussi cow add large and thick and more forwards-facing horns, long snouts, long legs, larger body size and a more athletic body with a hump, a complete optic aurochs that also is hardy and healthy with a broad genetic basis is achievable.

It's finally getting better

When grazing projects started, the number of Heck cattle herds increased significantly once again. I guess that mostly the more primitive-looking Heck cattle were chosen for these projects and often were and are bred for more aurochs-like looks, but only casually as the primary target is landscape conservation. Not to forget, there is also a number of private breeders that created some really beautiful and aurochs-like herds, such as Walter Frisch. Some zoos and game parks in which selective breeding with Heck cattle was not considered that important seemingly served as islands for the survival of the particularly “ugly” Heck cattle from decades ago (see f.e. the Zoo Neumünster or Wildpark Frankfurt/Oder), some of them having a rather odd aspect (see here and here). But interestingly, occasionally they possess features from their founding breeds that the other, more derived lineages apparently lost. Modern Heck cattle in general seemingly lost some features of their founding breeds, not only undesired ones, such as the snout and horn shape of Corsican bulls when I look at old photographs.

Cis van Vuure concluded in his book that after 80 years of breeding Heck cattle, the situation regarding an optic revival of the aurochs is probably as before; and i.e. I agree with that statement. But the quality of Heck cattle as an aurochs look-alike did not remain status quo since 1945. For example, the Wildgehege Neandertal was one of the most important breeding locations for Heck cattle and also executed effective selection in regards to coat colour and horns (and they also were the first to document the pedigree of their cattle, thanks to that we know that they used that half-Watussi cow). Because of their quality, cattle from this herd were used by a lot of other herds what resulted in a certain increase of authenticity of the breed as a whole. However, the resemblance to the aurochs was and is still very meagre in the overwhelming majority of this breed.
But in recent years, the quality of Heck cattle on a number of regions increased significantly. One reason might be that the interest in the aurochs and breeding back grew as the value of robust cattle for conservation was recognized and they were put out onto beautiful, natural pastures. While some grazing projects consider the level of aurochs-likeness sufficient for their purposes, others do select to a certain degree. But it was mainly the excellent work of some private breeders like Walter Frisch who produced very valuable animals (in this case great horns), and the creation of Taurus cattle (which also emphasized the differences between usual Hecks and the aurochs) through which the whole Heck population is getting more aurochs-like since the good animals are increasingly popular among breeders because of their obviously more authentic looks. Many southern-German herds have individuals with large horns today, f.e. the one at the Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald or this Bavarian herd, but also grazing projects in the Spreeaue, Sachsen and others (The bull from Spreeaue in the link probably is a son of Walter Frisch's bull Ari, which covered or still covers this herd). The emergence of Taurus cattle initiated by the ABU in 1997 was another crucial step. Sayaguesa, Chianina and Lidia added size, long-leggedness, forwards-facing horns and a more slender body that were lacking in the Heck gene pool until then.
Mind that Heck cattle per se is not a breeding-back attempt anymore, and all breeders are free to breed their cattle how they want, so this process is progressing only slowly.

It would be really cool if a project that executes rigorous selective breeding with Heck cattle would come into existence. Imagine someone would by 100+ Hecks (Taurus included) from the best herds (f.e. Lippeaue, Wörth, Neandertal, Schmidtenhöhe, Slikken van Flakee, and if legally possible OVP) and keeps them on a large, semi-natural area. They would breed for them selves, the bulls fight for the breeding rights, so that a certain degree of natural selection would be given, but the undesired individuals would still be selected out. I think such a project would produce really good animals and finally the full potential of Heck cattle for aurochs “rebreeding” would be seized.

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