It’s not uncommon that web or field research unearths some surprisingly aurochs-like or, in terms of dedomestication, spectacular breeds. But these news struck me the most. Hold on your horns.
It seems that aurochs enthusiasts involved in some rewilding projects have, looking for primitive landraces in Poland, discovered a really remarkable population of cattle. Farmer Julius Woźniak from Łódź is the owner of a herd of about 20 cattle that show significant similarity to the aurochs: they are comparably large (bulls reach about 165cm at the shoulders, so they are about the size of Sayaguesa or a little larger), the horns are nearly completely aurochs-like just slightly thinner and rarely some deviant shapes show up, and the colour is perfectly aurochs-like – bulls are black with an eel stripe, light muzzle ring and dark, prominent forelocks. Cows are of a reddish-brown colour with darker shades just like in some Maronesa and Heck cows. Occasionally there are black cows, just like Anton Schneeberger reported in the 16th century. Deviant colours do not appear – only some calves show an ashy grey tone that disappears later on. Those cattle are kept in a very traditional manner – they wander around freely all the year round, where they thrive in clear forests and sometimes also visit the mountains. Only when the owner wants to seize them, he goes into the forest and looks for them with a his dogs and gathers them together. He only uses their meat and coat, he never milked one of them. “They almost give no milk. And I would never try to milk one of those cows. They are nasty beasts”, Wozniak says. In some rural regions of Poland there are still wolf packs that regularly kill farm animals, and it also happens that some calves get poached by the wolves, but it is said that the cows show a great will to defend their calves and surround them in circles when they are in danger. Adult animals do not have to fear them. Wozniak once witnessed such a wolf attack “I saw two or three wolves teasing one of my adult bulls. He tossed one of them into the air about four or five metres wide. Then the wolves were gone”. The remark that he has more than one adult bull is interesting – perhaps there is mating competition between the bulls, and therefore some form of natural selection.
This kind immediately caught the attention of the researchers. Wozniak allowed them to take hair samples from one young bull that was about to be slaughtered, and they delivered it to a lab at the University of Warsaw, under the guidance of a certain Prof. Rubenstein. The lab is going to test and compare the samples to “other Polish rural cattle, milk and beef cattle, one Iberian breed [I don’t know which one] and Heck cattle [I wonder for which purpose…]”. Rubenstein says: “If it turns out that these bull has any phylogenetic markers, be it mitochondrial, Y chromosomal or whatever, that are not present in any other European cattle, it would be a strong hint that the cattle of Mr. Wozniak are of a unique and ancient origin. We also want to do a molecular clock analysis to get some clue when this breed diverged from other cattle”. I hope that this sample is representative enough. A priori, I rule out that these cattle are the result of local domestication. But, considering that Poland, as most of my readers will know, was the latest refuge of the aurochs, it may be that these cattle are the result of massive late introgression of the aurochs and that they have been kept isolated from other cattle for a long time.
How credible is that scenario? I think it’s not unlikely. Remember that the last (and probably already mixed) wild horses in Poland were kept in the Zamość game park until 1806 when they were donated for economical reasons to a number of farmers in the Bilgoraj region. Cis van Vuure in his 2005 book pointed to the possibility that one or even more game parks might have aurochs even past 1627 because of an ambiguous letter from that time. So perhaps there were still some small aurochs herds around during the middle or even later half of the 17th century. I can imagine that there was a similar scenario like that with the wild horses. Maybe one of these game parks was not interested in keeping them anymore and donated them to some neighbouring farmers. Aurochs were surely not easy to handle, but looking at how Wozniak keeps his cattle it might be less problematic, also considering that they were probably mixed with some local cattle that must have been primitive anyway (perhaps like those rural Romanian cattle?). It might be well possible that some of these farmers lived in regions that were comparably isolated and that these aurochs hybrids subsequently barely mixed with other cattle. And these semi-wild circumstances under which they were kept probably preserved a lot of typical aurochs characteristics.
What Wozniak told us fits this idea: He said that this breed (or lets call it a population) does not have a particular name. His family has been breeding them for generations and he knows only of two other breeders – he has not seen these cattle in any other region yet. The two aurochs enthusiasts have shown him photos of Maronesa, Sayaguesa and Heck cattle. Wozniak said that they look similar but he does not think that these cattle are related to his.
I am incredibly exited and I can’t wait for the results of the genetic analysis. And even if these cattle do not turn out as the descendants of the last aurochs on earth, it would be a remarkable breed anyway and very useful for “breeding back”.
I was provided with some decent photos of these cattle. If you want to have a look, go here, here and here.