Sunday, 29 September 2019

Watussi-influence in Heck cattle: Fact or myth?

After a couple of months of silence here, I am back with a number of posts in preparation. For now, I want to look into the Watussi influence in modern Heck cattle. 

Many large-horned Heck cattle have their long and thick horns thanks to the influence of the half-zebuine breed Watussi, which is remarkable its the huge horns with a remotely aurochs-like curvature. This is a note I have made many times on my blog, and is also found in numerous literature sources. However, some Heck breeders deny (or have been denying) the influence of this rather exotic breed in the otherwise exclusively European breed that aims to mimic the extinct European aurochs. With this post I want to look into the historic evidence for Watussi influence in the Heck cattle pool and also into the arguments against it raised by Heck cattle breeders, and finally why I am 100% convinced of the truth of Watussi influence for the large-horned Heck cattle lineages. 

Comparison: large-horned Heck cattle vs. standard Heck cattle 

Heck cattle descending from the putative Watussi cross are found in the Neandertal herd and the Frisch breeding line (which is derived from the former) plus all their descendants. As both were and are rather influential for other herds, this also goes for a large portion of the Heck cattle population in central Europe. All those herds have horns with a volume (and also curvature) more aurochs-like than others on average. This is especially true for the Frisch line (Insel Wörth being the former breeding locality), as the breeders put a special focus on improving the horns in this herd. 
There are also Heck cattle herds that have no influence from these two lines, and their horns are never spectacular, neither in volume nor curvature. Here is a comparison of one of the best Heck bulls from Wörth, Aretto (Photo by Walter Frisch, I hope it is ok for him that I use his photo), and a standard Heck bull from Hellabrunn, which resembles the original Heck cattle bred by the Heck brothers very much: 

You clearly see differences, not only in the horns. I will cover that later on. 

Documentation of Watussi influence in the herd book 

The international herd book of Heck cattle lists a cow named “Antje”, born in 1952 in the Duisburg Zoo, for which a father is remarked as “Watussi” and a mother remarked as “Aurochs” in the herd book. Some Heck breeders claim that those names listed in the Herd book were just names for the individuals themselves, and not the breed identities. Thus, the father would have been a Heck bull named “Watussi”. But it is important to note that “aurochs” was (and still is) being used as the breed name for Heck cattle by Heck cattle breeders, also in the herd book. If those terms were just individual names, it would be like listing father and mother in a Golden retriever breed book as “Golden retriever” and “German Shepherd”. This would be rather unlikely. 

Regardless of the identity of the individual Antje, whether it was a pure Heck cow or half-Watussi, it was sold to the Wildgehege Neandertal, where it produced three cows and one bull named “Nuck”, which was subsequently used as a breeding bull in the herd. Assuming that “Watussi” in the breeding book was indeed a Watussi, Nuck and its sisters would have been 25% Watussi. Together they would produce F2 of this combination, and with its mother it would have produced 1/3 Watussi Heck individuals. This would be plenty of genetic influence in the herd – if just consistent back-crossing with Heck cattle happened, the Watussi-influence would have been reduced to nil rather quickly. By using the quarter Watussi bull as a breeding-bull, it could be the case that many individuals of the herd during the 1970s and 1980s still had a influence by Watussi that was not undetectable in phenotype and considerable in percentage – one would have to research precisely in the breeding book. The Neandertal herd, due to its quality in colour and horns, influenced many other herds in Central Europe during the 20thcentury, including the Frisch herd, which was formed mainly by individuals from the Munich zoo and the Neandertal. The Frisch lineage is the Heck cattle lineage with the mightiest and best-curved horns (see here). The absolute and relative dimensions are very satisfying and surpass all other Heck cattle herds on this world, thanks to intense selection and the good basis from the Neandertal herd. Its influence on many other Heck cattle herds, especially in Southern Germany, is easily detectable when looking at the horns.

Considering that the original set of breeds chosen by the Heck brothers does not show any focus on large and thick horns but is rather dominated by breeds with medium-sized to small sized horns (Angeln, Werdenfelser, Corsicana etc.) and that even those with the largest horns of this selection (Grey cattle and Highland) never have such spectacular horns, and – more importantly – Heck cattle outside of these lineages never have really large, thick horns, it is rather suspicious that one important founding cow of these two exclusively large-horned lineages has a father listed as “Watussi” in the herd book. If indeed “Watussi” was just an individual name chosen for a pure Heck bull, which would be a rather curious name choice, the coincidence is huge that its descendants turn out to be Heck cattle with considerably larger horns than Heck cattle not descending from it. 

This makes it very likely that the bull named “Watussi” in the breeding book was indeed a Watussi bull. Therefore, the influence of the large-horned Watussi breed in Heck cattle is documented in the breeding book and probably responsible for the increased horn volume in the breed lines descending from it. 

The phenotype 

Apart from the horn size, there are other morphological traits that support a Watussi ancestry for the large-horned Heck cattle lineages. Comparing the photos of the two bulls above, the bull from Wörth, with the documented Watussi ancestry, also has a trunk that is slightly more sloping than the rather rectangular trunk of the classic Heck bull, resembling the “sausage-like” body shape that is typical of zebuine breeds, formed by a sloping back and a more down-turned pelvis. The differences in trunk shape are not due to perspective, it is visible on many photos. Also, some Heck cattle of the Neandertal-Wörth lineage and their descendants have slightly hanging ears (f.e. the bull Nestor used in the Lippeaue), which is also probably inherited from Watussi. The horn shape of Aretto is 100% identical to that of many Watussi individuals. Also, the skull shape and shape of the face is somehow reminiscent of Watussi (zebuine breeds have a somehow different face than taurine cattle, it is hard to describe it, but the differences concern the nose, eyes and snout shape). 
All in all Aretto indeed looks as if it was a cross between a normal Heck bull like the one above and 1/8 or 1/4 Watussi. 

There are also a lot of other large-horned individuals descending either from the Wörth lineage or the Neandertal herd that show traits very reminiscent of Watussi. The faces of this bull and this cow, for example. There is also a bull kept in Baden-Würtemberg that has all the vestiges of Watussi ancestry in one (face shape, hanging ears, sloping pelvis, colour), it is unfortunately not online anymore. The zebuine/Watussi influence in this cow at the Schwarzwald, which is probably from the Neandertal herd, is very obvious right from the first glimpse. Also, some of the very large-horned Heck cattle have an interesting colour with a slightly purple shine and a very orange colour between the horns. As Watussi have a very rich wine-red colour, this too might be a result of Watussi alleles. All individuals that show this colour also have other suspiciously Watussi-like morphological traits. 

In my opinion, the influence from Watussi cattle in large-horned Heck cattle is historically documented and very obvious from unambiguous morphological traits. Take a look at the bull at 0:53 and 1:51 in this video: with the shape of its face and trunk, the slightly hanging ears, the wine-red shade in its colour and of course the very thick horns this bull cannot deny its Watussi ancestry. 

However, I do not think this is a bad thing per se. Watussi obviously helped to improve the horns greatly, and it would have been difficult to achieve that with a taurine breed. The fact that zebus are a different subspecies is, in this case, only a nomenclatural problem to me because I am looking only at the genes. And those vestiges of zebuine ancestry (ears, sloping body) are undesired domestic traits that just have to be bred out like any other trait (f.e. see the many different colour variants found in taurine cattle, that would have been added to the pool if Texas Longhorn would have been used instead of Watussi). Summa summarum, it does not lower the quality of large-horned Heck cattle as a “breeding-back” result in my opinion. I would use the good individuals like Aretto or Erni at any time for a breeding project. 

But there are voices against using Watussi for horn volume in “breeding-back” because it is a half-zebuine breed with obvious zebuine traits that would leave a strong mark in the otherwise taurine populations. My argument against this concern is that Heck cattle is an example for using Watussi for horn volume without altering the taurine nature of the breed. Apparently this was not 100% correct as there are some zebuine vestiges visible on occasion in the breed. However, I still do think that my argument is valid, and that there will not be much if any visible zebuine influence in breeding projects using Watussi, such as the Auerrind project or Hungarian Taurus cattle, if bred carefully because the breeding mode there is different: in Heck cattle, we had a herd with a part-Watussi breeding bull that had backcrossing with part-Watussi individuals. In the other projects you still have active crossbreeding with several different breeds, where there can be a constant supply with new genetic material and selection would have to focus on keeping the alleles that contribute the large horn volume and loose the alleles typical for zebuine breeds or Watussi. 

On the other hand, there still is genetic linkage – maybe this kind of fractioning the alleles is not entirely possible because the alleles are linked on the same chromosomes, and this could even be the reason why Watussi influence is still visible in large-horned Heck cattle – the genes might be linked. Nevertheless, only practical breeding can show what the results are going to look like, I am still very fond of carefully using Watussi in “breeding-back” and am looking forward to see more results of that.