Thursday, 14 September 2017

What has changed since 2011

I have been concerning myself with the aurochs and “breeding-back” since March 2011, so more than six years now, and it is interesting to see how much has changed – and exclusively in a positive direction. I am talking about projects, the animals themselves, the information you can find and the availability of that information.

Where “breeding-back” was in 2011 and where it is now

In 2011, there were basically three breeds/projects: Heck cattle (which itself is not a coordinated “breeding-back” project anymore but merely a breed), Taurus cattle (which is also considered more of a breed, but there is systematic and coordinated “breeding-back” at least in the two main locations, Lippeaue and Hortobagy), and the Tauros Project. Heck cattle is a large but very heterogeneous pool of individuals and there is no coordinated selective breeding plan for the breed as a whole, therefore the individuals of that breed vary dramatically in “quality”. There is an improving process, but only very slowly. Regarding Taurus cattle, the Lippeaue population has produced a number of really good individuals by 2011 and earlier already, and still does. In Hortobagy, Hungary, they started with a quantity phase of building up volume and 2011 was the year of shift towards quality breeding. This is, of course, an on-going process. The Tauros Project was in the beginning of the starting phase in 2011.

Now, in 2017, we have Heck cattle, Taurus cattle, the Tauros Project, the Auerrind Project and the Uruz Project. Heck cattle is still experiencing its process of slow improvement, and I think that breeders become increasingly aware of the breeds usual deficiencies (size, proportions, body and horn shape etc.), so more improvement is to be expected. Taurus cattle in the Lippeaue keep on producing good and very good individuals that are often sold to other locations in Germany, often as breeding bulls, improving the Taurus-Heck gene pool as a whole. In Hortobagy, the numbers rose to more than 500 animals, making it the largest “breeding-back” population and I have seen a lot of very interesting individuals and breed combinations on photos already. The Tauros Project is now really underway, with plenty of herds and also in many countries; I like many of the crossbreeds they have to date, and the numbers are above 100.
The Auerrind Project came into existence in Germany. They are in the starting phase right now, with the first crossbred individuals born already, and are planning to realise  interesting combinations not tried before (such as Chianina x Watussi) and such that I have been wishing to be used on a larger scale for a long time (Sayaguesa x Chianina). Thus you can’t imagine how much I am looking forward to see F2 crosses from the Auerrind Project. For the Uruz Project (the name was, if I may mention this, actually my idea that I suggested to Henri Kerkdijk-Otten; just spelled with an “s”), the situation is unclear at the moment. 

Scientific research

Back in 2011, a lot of questions were less clear than they are now concerning aurochs and cattle genetics, f.e. how are which cattle related to each other and the aurochs, was there local introgression or even domestication and to which extent, where did the aurochs originate and cladogenesis within the species et cetera. Now, this field is studied way better, especially thanks to the full recovery of the genome of a British aurochs from 8.000 years ago. This makes it even possible to genetically reconstruct the species via cloning or CRISPR-Cas9 (what consequences would that have for breeding-back? I am going to cover that in an upcoming post).

Information and its availability

Back in 2011, the information situation on breeding-back was very meagre. The articles on the aurochs, Heck cattle and breeding-back on the German and English Wikipedia were not very extensive, and sometimes full of errors and misinformation (especially those on Heck cattle). I expanded them and corrected errors using literature (mainly from Cis van Vuure and Walter Frisch, but also scientific papers), and also added critique sections to the articles on Heck cattle, which was necessary especially on the German one, were Heck cattle was almost praised as a bred-back aurochs, speaking of “quick and incredible results” and so on. Sometimes I was too critical. I also included passages on primitive breeds, made extra articles on them, also supported with photos, as much as a site on the Tauros Project and for Taurus cattle. Later on, also other people started to expand those respective articles and also contributed a lot, especially since I did not have time that much during the last years due to my studies at the University.

For Taurus cattle, not much was to find on the internet. There were only two PDFs from the ABU showing only a very small number of crossbred, first-generation, a google search for photos did not reveal much either. Then in 2013, I first visited the reserve and presented a lot of photos, and you also definitely find more on google now. Also thanks to a growing number of Taurus-influenced breeding-sites.

Besides the articles on Wikipedia, what also was and is an important source of online information is the Aurochs thread on the Carnivora forum. You find a lot of information, photos, breeds, literature, ideas and inspiration there that often influenced my conceptions and ideas regarding this subject. This thread clearly is a rich resource for anyone who wants to get deeper into the subject, and I believe it contributed a lot to giving the concepts of “breeding-back” a more scientific backbone.

Nowadays it is really easy to find a lot of information on the aurochs itself, primitive cattle breeds, “breeding back” and its projects on the web. Thanks to a lot of people making information easily available on various online sources, and also because some projects, such as the Auerrind Project, have a very good public relations work.

The “aurochs web community”

A very interesting phenomenon of the last years, and certainly a consequence of growing projects and information becoming more easily available, is that a kind of “aurochs web community” has developed.
I have been a dinosaur nerd for a long time and basically still am, and as you can imagine there is a huge dinosaur/paleontology web community that is well organised and connected with dozens of qualitative blogs, a very good Wikipedia, youtube channels, huge mailing lists, qualitative artworks called “paleoart” and so on. This is a consequence of the fact that there are several thousands of paleontology lovers on this world, and many of them being of young age and spending a lot of time on the web.

During the last years, I increasingly noticed that an aurochs web community has developed. Not only are there now a lot of people writing on Wikipedia and expanding the articles with scientific sources, showing that they have dug into the subject and know what they are writing, I also have a lot of blog viewers, commenters and a large audience. The Carnivora aurochs thread is very popular as well. It is not only that a lot of people are into the subject now and I feel the number is rising, a lot of people also are quite knowledgeable on this subject. I get a lot of good questions and remarks via email and on my blog, showing that a lot of people are concerning themselves with this subject and also have a passion for it.
There already was an aurochs community prior to 2011 of course. It included all the aurochs lovers at already where there before the aurochs web community developed, and many of them are Heck cattle breeders or just lovers of extinct animals in general. In Germany, I was told that the members of the VFA, the German Heck cattle breeding association, funnily are a cross-section of the whole society and includes members of all kinds of professions (architects, scientists, farmers etc.) that all share a passion for the wild bovine (the conception of what this bovine actually was like is probably not that homogeneous or strict in this case, otherwise Heck cattle would look quite different today). And of course those who initiated the new projects or worked with “breeding-back” cattle in grazing projects or zoos must also have a passion for the original aurochs. It is certainly one of those animals that have a certain charisma, and I covered that charisma in this post.

But what is different in the case of the aurochs web community is that we have a lot of people probably being active a lot on the web, and consequently many of them might be of comparable age as in the paleo web community. After all, I was 17 years old when I got into the aurochs. It is really funny and enjoyable that this kind of community developed, because I would have never guessed that there is enough potential for a subject that concerns mostly with cattle. Of course the aurochs web community is not even nearly as big as the paleocommunity (yet?), because bovines cannot hold up with dinosaurs. Or can they?

In any case, looking back at all the development in “breeding-back” – the projects, the quality of the animals we see, the amount and availability of information, the rising and surprisingly big interest in this topic – pleases me very much. I would actually say now is the best time for an aurochs fan to live in since 1627.


  1. Hi Daniel, as each of the projects you named above reach the finishing line of acceptible phenotypes over the next twenty or thirty years(or however long it takes), do you think that the projects will cooperate with their animals to eventually manage as a greater interconnected population eventually with breeds like Heck being absorbed in and upgraded so they are no longer separate? Or will we have a group of large, athletic aurochs sized animals for larger parks and smaller stocky Heck types for smaller nature areas that are used more intensively by people?
    Dave Kenny

  2. Hi Daniel, as each of the projects you named above reach the finishing line of acceptible phenotypes over the next twenty or thirty years(or however long it takes), do you think that the projects will cooperate with their animals to eventually manage as a greater interconnected population eventually with breeds like Heck being absorbed in and upgraded so they are no longer separate? Or will we have a group of large, athletic aurochs sized animals for larger parks and smaller stocky Heck types for smaller nature areas that are used more intensively by people?
    Dave Kenny

    1. That is a point that I am going to adress in a post that is about to come. I cannot predict what is going to happen because it will depend on the actions and mindsets of the people that will be in charge in the next few decades; I can only write down what I personally hope to happen, and that is a scenario similar to what you described.

  3. Indeed, a lot has been going since 2011, in a positive way. Although I firmly believe that at least one of the ongoing projects has the realistic chance of breeding back the auerochs, the main obstacle still lies ahead: The authorities of the EU or of the countries, in which breeding-back herds -Tauros etc. - are kept, have to agree to give these Auerochs 2.0 cattle the status of a wild species. Only then the ultimate objective is reached to restore the Auerochs as a wild species and grant it a protected status. (Until that, as far as I know EU law requires that each cow/bull be caught at least once a year and a blood probe has to be taken etc., which poses a serious fincancial and organizational burden to the foundations carrying out the breeding projects)

  4. I would guess if the EU were made aware of the time and effort and science involved to take these projects to fruition and if these groups produced uniform animals that did not require active management it should not be too difficult to get wild status for these animals. Wild status might then mean that neighbouring farmers in The Netherlands and Belgium might protest against having these animals in small reserves close to their herds.maybe the smaller Heck type could be maintained for those areas at least for the short term.

  5. Great post. You may be interested in this account of the potential role of these back-bred animals in the UK here: