A while ago, I did a blog post “I am not so optimistic anymore” on the Tauros Project. By “not so optimistic” I meant that initially I thought/hoped the Tauros Project would surpass other breeding-back attempts with ease in a short time. Later on, having seen more animals of the project and an increased knowledge on genetics and animal breeding, my initial enthusiasm was replaced by a more deflated opinion. That is not to say that I turned to being pessimistic, not at all.
Now, having two years passed, I want to give a second opinion and prognosis for the project. My opinion is based solely on the scarce information that can be found on the web, and photo material of the herds.
The project has expanded nicely all over Europe, and has dozens of crossbred animals already. Some of them look really nice, and also the purebred founding individuals look good overall, although not always as tall and slender as I hoped. Of course they are not perfect yet, but they are of their first and second cross generation, so they just getting started. They have to genetically unify the founding breeds in one gene pool and then get rid of the undesired traits. Two years ago, I was worried about the large amount of Highland cattle in the project, which is used as a “quantity breed” to increase volume. I thought their undesirable traits would swamp the population and produce a high number of animals with small size, stubby body and short legs and face. This might be true for the first and second generation that includes Highland, but as Taurus cattle has shown, as long as they continue backcross them with slender southern European breeds, the undesired Highland body morph might be largely bred away in two or three generations.
The project is at such an early state that it might not be that effective to look at their first or second generation animals. It is more important to look at the founding individuals and to see what traits they have, what tells us what can be achieved in the future. Many of the southern European cattle they purchased and a number of crossbreeds have a slender and well-proportioned body, some do not. Sayaguesa seems to be the largest of the breeds included at large scale; Sayaguesa is a tall breed, but maybe it is necessary to include very tall breeds like Chianina to compensate the small size of breeds like Highland, Pajuna or Maronesa. The Tauros Project does not want to use that breed as far as I know, but maybe they are able to get their hands on really large Boskarin or semen from Maltese cattle – that would help to increase the size of the Tauros crossbreeds.
Many of the founding breeds of the Tauros Project are comparably short horned or have medium-sized horns. The project thus needs a breed with really large and thick horns to compensate that. The two largest-horned breeds of the project are Highland cattle and Maremmana; some individuals of both breeds have impressing horns indeed that fit in length and thickness, but many have horns that do not reach the dimensions of the aurochs, especially regarding thickness. Therefore, and this is just my personal impression, the Tauros Project might need a breed that truly boosts horn size, otherwise it might have problems in future generations in achieving impressive and authentic horn sizes.
Regarding horns, the project has the advantage of using Maronesa. Surely, Maronesa has its disadvantages too (small size, sometimes rather hefty bulls, short faces), but is very useful in two respects: the colour is nearly always a perfect wildtype colour, often with a well marked sexual dimorphism. That is the case only in very few breeds. And, much more important, Maronesa often have horns with a very clear inwards-curve, in both sexes. This is also a rarity in most breeds. Therefore, when they take advantage of this breed, the Tauros Project might have less problems in achieving inwards-facing horns in both sexes than most other projects.
I am very happy that the Tauros Project is using Maronesa. So far, it is the only project using that breed. I think Maronesa can be very helpful when crossed with the right breeds. Imagine a herd that is composed of Maronesa x Chianina only. It would bear a lot of potential, it would include almost all aurochs traits except for really elongated skulls. Using Maltese cattle instead of Chianina would also result in a much lower frequency of dilution alleles in the herd and add the elongated skull shape. Both combinations would still probably need some augmentation regarding horn size.
Back to the Tauros Project. I think that the project is progressing well and they are doing a good job (according to the Rewidling Europe webpage, they have almost 300 crossbred animals by now, dispersed among several European countries). Regardless of whether they are going to achieve truly impressive sizes or horn volume, I think the project is going to produce many rather good individuals in any case. The basis is good, and many of the crossbred animals born already look satisfying. I repeat my statement that I think the Tauros cattle will resemble Taurus cattle, with minor differences because they have different founding breeds. And that is a good thing, as it means they will achieve a high resemblance to their common wild ancestor. Of course the project faces the same challenges as all cattle breeding projects: it has to unify the desired traits and get rid of the undesired ones. And since the rules of inheritance go for all projects, it will take a lot of time, especially in such a slowly reproducing species as cattle. Recessive alleles, such as the dilution factors inherited by Podolian cattle or the recessive red of Highland cattle, will continue to show up for decades, just as other undesired traits will do. But that is a problem that all projects are facing, that’s part of animal breeding.
All in all, I am very happy with the progress of the project. It is great to see how it creates one herd after the other, I enjoy looking at the animals, and I am looking forward to see the future cross animals and I am confident that there will be some really good individuals among them. I think that we are living in the golden age of “breeding back”. There are so many projects and herds in so many European countries, and all of them are promising. All of them have their own take-on to this subject, and this is positive, as there are probably multiple ways to the goal and it increases the genetic diversity of the herds in sum (I am still dreaming of one large “breeding back” metapopulation in the future).