Genetic diversity is an essential trait a population must have for being fit to be released into the wilderness. A genetically diverse population has a higher chance for adapting against diseases, predators and other obstacles of living in the wild and also enables a higher speed of adaption (Fisher’s fundamental theorem). So it is not only important to breed aurochs-like cattle for aurochs-like traits and ecological suitability, but also to keep the population(s) genetically diverse at the same time.
Now that we have a couple of breeding-back projects and breeds (Taurus cattle and good Heck cattle, the Tauros Project, the Uruz Project*, the Auerrind Project), how broad is the genetic basis?
Sayaguesa is a breed that is used in four of these breeds/projects (Taurus, Tauros, Auerrind and probably Uruz), and at least three of them got their current individuals from the same herd in the Netherlands (owned by Peter van Geneijgen). Taurus and Auerrind both use Chianina, and got their animals from the same herd of Rainer Titzentaler. So the animals are related to some degree. Heck cattle originally had a broad genetic basis because the Hecks gathered breeds from all over Europe in a time when there was less exchange, but went through several genetic bottlenecks so it is questionable if the breed can still be considered genetically diverse despite its large phenotypic variability; especially since one of the best herds that recently had a big influence on many good Heck herds, the former herd of Walter Frisch, is an inbreeding line.
* It has been long ago that the True Nature Foundation gave clear information on this project, and it seems that there has been one more split, so I have to neglect this project here for now.
Although I think that genetic diversity can be overrated as well (look at feral cattle populations that have a long history – many of them have a narrow genetic basis) as long as the animals are genetically healthy and do not carry too many deleterious alleles, and the genetic base that we currently have is probably enough for the sporadic, small-patched possibilities of releasing them into the wild in modern Europe especially if there will be exchange between the different populations in the future (which I hope, more on that in an upcoming post). The easiest way to increase the genetic diversity of the “breeding-back population” as a whole would be to either cross in breeds currently not used or create new herds working with new breeds. This would not imply a decrease in quality since the breeds currently used are not necessarily the best of the best, but there are many other cattle breeds on this world that are just as advantageous. The choice of the current breeds probably depended on availability, coincidence, experience et cetera. With this and the following post, I want to outline a number of breeds that would be just as good as, in some cases even better, than the breeds currently used in order to inspire people working in projects or planning to set up new projects.
But before that, I want to give an overview over the breeds currently used in “breeding-back” and in which project (italics):
Chianina – Taurus, Auerrind
Heck cattle – Taurus, on its own
Highland cattle – Tauros
Limia – Tauros
Lidia – Taurus (formerly)
Maronesa – Tauros
Pajuna – Tauros
Podolian cattle (Maremmana, Grey cattle, Boskarin, Podolica…) – Tauros, Taurus, Auerrind
Rhodopian shorthorn – Tauros
Sayaguesa – Tauros, Taurus, Auerrind
Watussi – Taurus, Auerrind
Additionally to that, there are breeds that are not used in the form of pure individuals but single crossbred animals like Tudanca (Tauros), Holstein (Taurus), Alistana-Sanabresa (some of the Sayaguesa in Taurus, Tauros and Auerrind).
There are plenty of alternatives to the current breeds in Europe alone, and with the set of breeds that I am going to introduce here it would probably be possible to gain all the desired aurochs-like traits to a more or less satisfying extent. There are of course many alternatives from other places of the world as well, but I start with the continent breeding-back is focusing on.
Note that I completely leave aside unpublished claims on alleged genetic proximity to wild aurochs here. Furthermore, of course all of these breeds have their con’s as well, you would have to pick the right breeds to cross them with – so if your first reaction to my proposal of this and that breed is something like “what, this breed, look at its tiny horns”, I am of course aware of that and would therefore propose to use it in a combination with a breed that compensates this deficiency, and so on.
Alternatives in Europe (incl. breeds of European descent)
The presence of this breed on my list might surprise, but there are Angeln cattle that exhibit two precious traits: long snouts, especially in cows, and inwards-curving horns in an aurochs-like manner. Furthermore, they should be well-suited to Central and Northern European climate. One would, of course, have to avoid individuals with huge udders and other derived traits. By the way, Angeln cattle were also among the founding breeds of Heck cattle, which shows in a number of individuals.
Agerolese is a crossbreed of native Italian cattle with more derived, northern breeds like Frisian, Jersey and Braunvieh. They are very small (bulls only 130-135cm at the shoulders) and so are their horns, but their colour is aurochs-like with some degree of sexual dimorphism and the curvature of the horns often is acceptable as well.
This breed is being used indirectly in the form of Sayaguesa individuals slightly influenced by that breed, but if one needs another breed that is similar in build and horn shape with slightly larger horns and a lighter colour (in both sexes though), this breed is an option.
This breed is rather similar to Sayaguesa too and probably closely related. They are smaller though, and seem a bit more bulky. Many carry the Ed mutation which causes a wholly black colour, but the wildtype allele E+ is present as well.
Just based on their optics, Busha do not really knock me off the socks. However, they are probably suited very well to the climate of the Balkans (and other regions of Europe) and can be a basis for cross herds.
Many Barrosa are small, bulldog-faced and dachshund-legged, and their horns are not that thick. But I am sure that in the variability of the breed individuals can be found that are higher in build with less shortened faces and good, thick horns. Such individuals would be a good option to crossbreed with f.e. Sayaguesa and similar breeds. As for its similar sister breed, Cachena, I consider it a bit too small, stubby and short-faced.
Betizu would be a prime option because of their feral history. Of course they are small, have dilution factors that modify their coat colour and their horns are not good either, but that can be compensated by crossbreeding.
Another breed that is rather similar to Sayaguesa in looks, but smaller (140cm for bulls, ~130cm for cows).
Camargue could be very advantageous because of their high-legged, slender and athletic build. The horns are rather upright (but they curve inwards) and they do not have the wildtype colour allele, but I think this breed would be rather advantageous. They are rather small, but I think their deer-like elegance is precious. Nowadays, they are often crossed with Lidia, so one would have to pay attention on not picking too aggressive and massively built individuals.
The advantage of this breed is that they have been living under rather harsh conditions for centuries and are resistant to a number of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease. Their century-long life in a virtually feral state must have left traces in natural and social instincts and resistance to climate which would be rather beneficial for a breeding-back population. Apart from that, they are not closely related to the mostly Southern European breeds currently used. They have large, sometimes long-snouted heads and single individuals have a remotely aurochs-like horn curvature. This breed is rare, only two herds exist, but maybe the cattle warden would be willing to make one young bull available.
Corriente have a rather aurochs-like, muscular build with a well-pronounced hump. Their legs are slender, some have long snouts as well. The horn curvature is good to very good in single individuals. They display a number of colour variants and an accurate aurochs colour is among them. Corriente would be as beneficial as Lidia, without being overly aggressive or bulls growing heavily massive at high age. The biggest disadvantage is a logistical one: it is an American breed and importing individuals would be very effortful. So maybe they could only be used via semen. For some videos showing Corriente with a good build and horn shapes, go here or here.
The disadvantages of this breed are obvious: small, massive, bulldog-faced and dachshund-legged. However, my proposal of this breed here is based on a discussion on the Carnivora Forum Aurochs thread, where Eringer was discussed being used as a “quantity breed” for building up cross herds, in the same way the Tauros Project is using Highland cattle. As a sole “quantity breed”, Eringer would probably be more advantageous than Highland cattle. Plenty of them have the right colour, a muscular body with a hump, and thick horns slightly curving inwards. They are probably suited to central European climate.
This breed is small, but advantageous because rather hardy and what is very precious: a lot of cows have very aurochs-like, strongly inwards-curving horns (there are no bulls with aurochs-like horns however, but this is a general phenomenon in domestic cattle). They exist in many colour variants, aurochs-like colour among them. Like other American breeds, they would have to be either imported or used via semen.
Maltese cattle would be a rather awesome breed to work with. It is said to be of the same size as Chianina, but expresses mostly an undiluted wildtype colour, is of a magnificent build and has rather long snouts. The problem is their very small population, so their availability would depend on if the owners would be willing to provide a project with semen of a bull or not.
Modicana is an Italian breed that could be very useful. It has a build that is rather similar to Pajuna, some individuals are slender and well-shaped and they are large according to the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (160cm for bulls, 145 for cows). The horns are not impressive, but I would suggest using that breed at any time if they are that large indeed.
Body shape and size of this breed are not sensational, but some cows seemingly have horn shapes that could be useful for crossbreeding, and they have retained some degree of colour dimorphism (though, as in most cattle breeds, imperfectly).
This Italian breed is comparable to Agerolese, but not as small (140-155 for bulls). It is influenced by Chianina and Braunvieh, has an acceptable body shape and good colour. The horns are tiny.
Rendena is another small Italian breed with a good colour and average body, it is probably the most aurochs-like alpine breed.
This breed is, like Avilena, comparable to Sayaguesa and probably closely related, but smaller and less long-legged. Good individuals would probably still be a useful basis for crossbreeding, especially since some cows, just like in Sayaguesa, have aurochs-like horns.
Terrena is perhaps comparable to Pajuna or Limia, and small and rare. However, their body shape and colour is fine. The horn curvature mediocre.
Tudanca is used in the form of some half-Tudanca individuals in the Tauros Project. However, I suggest also using it on a larger scale. Regarding its size, the DADIS contradicts itself: it gives a withers height for bulls of 165cm and 160cm for cows and states “small sized with great sexual dimorphism”. Based on most videos I have seen I dare to doubt that they reach large sizes on average. Nevertheless, some Tudanca have a rather good body shape (see the videos here and here), their horns are at the edge of what I would call “large”, skull shape is ok. They have the same dilution allele as Podolian cattle and Grauvieh, but dilution alleles can hardly be avoided. Some bulls are wholly black without a saddle, cows always lightly coloured.
This breed is comparably small, but rather hardy. The big advantage however is that it one of the very few more or less aurochs-like breeds that have really large horns. The only aurochs-like breed that rivals Texas Longhorn in having decently long and thick horns are large-horned Heck cattle. They display many colour variants, including aurochs-coloured individuals. One would have to pick the right individuals.
Vianesa is rather similar to Limia, although the bulls tend to be rather lightly-coloured. Body shape and horns are acceptable. They are not large, comparable to Heck cattle in size.
Now I briefly introduced a lot of breeds (I could have introduced even more), many of them are from the Iberian peninsular and some of them might be closely related to each other and/or some of the breeds already used. The gain of genetic diversity would be much higher when including cattle from the group I am introducing in the next post, and they would also bring some phenotypic advantages.