Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Thoughts for a Fighting cattle project

In a previous post, I presented an aurochs reconstruction I did recently. I wrote that it matches 100% what I imagine a Holocene European aurochs to have looked like, and that there are obvious similarities to many Lidia bulls (Iberian fighting cattle). Of course there is the danger of a Pygmalion effect: I might draw my aurochs Lidia-like, because I consider Lidia aurochs-like. This cannot be ruled out completely. But I always try to follow the evidence and not to be guided by preconceptions when doing illustrations. In the post linked above, I explained why I drew the bull the way I did. Here is the illustration I am talking about:

Actually, the fact that Lidia is one of the least derived cattle breeds left today did not just come to my mind because of that drawing, but was apparent to me right from the beginning when I started to become interested in the aurochs. I use to explain the looks of the aurochs to people as “much like a big, long-legged and large-horned Iberian fighting bull”. Also, aurochs expert Cis van Vuure comes to the conclusion that this Iberian breed is the most aurochs-like breed in his 2005 book “Retracing the aurochs: History, morphology and ecology of an extinct wild ox”. And also Lutz Heck considered the breed very reminiscent of the extinct wild form and relied heavily on it in his breeding project (his lineage diminished, modern Heck cattle most likelyhas no influence from the Iberian fighting bull).

I am going to sum up the aurochs-like pro’s of Lidia cattle:
- Muscular, athletic body shape very reminiscent of wild bovines
- High processus spinosi in the shoulder region (“hump”), probably as large as in the aurochs
- Often elongated skull shape, straight to convex snout and often prominent forelocks, sometimes also on neck and face
- Horn shape reminiscent of that of the aurochs with an inwards curve, although usually not entirely as prominent as in the aurochs  
- Short dewlap and scrota and small udders in less derived individuals
- Wildtype colour plus sexual dichromatism (albeit reduced) present in the breed
- Robust landrace, used to live outside with little husbandry all year round

Especially the first four points are very advantageous for “breeding-back”, as those traits are rarely found in any other primitive breeds to the same extent. All of them give primitive Lidia individuals a very aurochs-like appearance, and I am going to link some of those less-derived aurochs-like Lidia individuals here:



For a video of aurochs-like Lidia bulls, go here for example. Another video of bulls with an exquisite anatomy and also respectable horns is here.

It is not only their less-derived anatomy and looks that make Lidia special, but also their hardiness and independency. As I reported in 2013, the three Lidia cows in the German Lippeaue reserve were the only cattle that were never seen to make use of supplementary feeding.

Despite of their many advantages, this breed also has considerable disadvantages. First of all, Lidia are quite small cattle. According to the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System, bulls reach a withers height of 130cm, and cows 110, which is 10-15cm smaller than Heck cattle and almost half a meter smaller than an average Holocene European aurochs. But even more important, Lidia cattle are being bred for aggression and “fighting spirit” and consequently are very aggressive and nervous, difficult to handle and often attack easily. Additionally to these two major disadvantages, Lidia bulls also tend to be short-legged compared to aurochs.

But of course it is the task of crossbreeding and selection to eradicate such negative traits, just as too small horns or undesired colour schemes. This has been tried in the Lippeaue, where three pure Lidia cows have been used for breeding. But they were not really satisfied with the results. For once, the crossbreeds remained comparably small, even if they had portions of Chianina or Sayaguesa, two large breeds, in their genome. The crossbreeds also displayed overly nervous or aggressive behaviour. This goes for the half-Lidia bulls as much as those that were only quarter Lidia such as Latino. One half-Lidia bull was sold to Hortobagy, Larus (which looked quite good), and Istvan Sandor it was the most aggressive bull he ever experienced. Another half-Lidia bull was sold to Denmark and slaughtered because he was too difficult to handle. I had a look at many Lidia cross individuals in Matthias Scharf’s photo archive, and many of them did look more muscular than crossbreeds without Lidia, but they also tended to develop a rather elongated trunk and did not possess the slim athletic waist of pure Lidia. As a side note, even pure Lidia bulls often grow rather hefty at higher age, and the crossbreeds seemingly tended to go that direction right from the beginning. So crossing-in Lidia was not that successful as hoped, which is why the ABU diluted the influence of this breed in their herds, and Matthias Scharf even said that he considered most Lidia-crosses to be “small, ugly and mean”. Currently, they have one good half-Lidia cow in their herd that also has a comparably relaxed behaviour.
Larus, a cross between a Lidia cow and a Dutch Heck bull (photo by Istvan Sandor)
So does this mean that Lidia is, despite its obvious qualities, not a useful breed for “breeding-back”? The Tauros Programme, for example, will not use this breed, especially because of its behaviour. Considering the difficulties in handling Lidia crosses, and the disappointing looks of many of the cross results concerning size and body shape, I would say that Lidia is indeed perhaps not worth the effort in conventional crossbreeding and keeping them in grazing projects.
Lidia x (Heck x Chianina) cow
Nevertheless, I also think that it would be a shame not to make use of the potential that is in the breed. Maybe the crossbreeding results are too double-edged to speak of a “successful use” of this breed in crossbreeding, but perhaps a project working exclusively with good, useful individuals of that breed and trying to eradicate the negative traits of Fighting cattle would be fruitful. I am thinking of a project that would at first try to find a sufficient number of aurochs-like Lidia cattle such as those on the photos I linked above that have the right colour setting, an athletic body, elongate skulls and good horns, and trying to acquire individuals that are as large as possible, as long-legged as possible and perhaps not overly aggressive or nervous. For this, I would try to search breeding sites all over Spain and Portugal and also include the Casta-Navarra breed. Selecting them for couple of generations for the good traits and against the three undesirable Lidia traits (small size, short-leggedness, aggression/nervousness) might produce some good results. When selecting against their aggressive and nervous behaviour, I would try to pay attention to not domesticate them any further by selecting explicitly on tame and docile behaviour, as pleiotropic effects can affect other traits as well as we see in all domestic animals (see the Dedomestication series). The question is, then, how to handle the cattle. It would be very difficult to next to impossible to keep them like in grazing projects or private farms. It might be wisest to handle them just like other Lidia breeders do, or perhaps like American farmers keep their bison, also with the necessary equipment. After all, a true wild aurochs probably could not be handled much differently, and it is no coincidence either that most natural grazing projects work with cattle instead of wisent. Of course it would be more advantageous if their behaviour was suitable for grazing projects, as grazing projects provide the most abundant opportunities to spread the breed and keep the animals under semi-natural conditions in herds of sufficient size, but this post focuses only on a scheme to breed a very aurochs-like strain of Lidia and not how to spread it. If it is indeed possible to breed a more relaxed and less dangerous behaviour but maintaining the wild cattle-like body conformation, it would be pleasant of course and perhaps enable the use of these cattle in grazing projects. However, I think it is questionable if this is possible within a few generations as fighting cattle have been bred for aggression for dozens of generations.

The idea of establishing an aurochs-like cattle population using Iberian Fighting cattle only is not new. Lutz Heck considered this breed almost indistinguishable from the aurochs, so that it is surprising that he still bred with other breeds as well. Cis van Vuure also proposed a project working with the most primitive Lidia cattle only in order to achieve maximum resemblance to the aurochs. I also remember that in email conversations it was once considered to put such a project into practise, but as several years passed now and I discovered no mention of it on the web I assumed this idea has died a silent death.

Also, I have my doubt that it is possible to achieve all aurochs-like traits using Lidia only. While some Lidia grow larger than the norm, I would be very surprised if selective breeding is able to raise the size range from 130cm for bulls to 160cm at least within a couple of generations. The same goes for horn size – while Lidia are not small-horned, the largest horns of this breed are still only at the lower size range of aurochs horns, perhaps still a bit too small when considering the size of the horn sheath. Also, the breed might need a boost in leg length, even after selective breeding. Furthermore, the problem with breeding for quantitative traits is that it takes comparably long and other traits might get neglected, including also genetic diversity (Lidia is already inbred).
Thus, crossing-in breeds that might help to overcome these deficiencies and also to increase genetic diversity is suggestive. The first option that comes to my mind are Chianina or Maltese cattle that would add the large size, slender posture and long legs. Maltese cattle have the advantage of introducing colour dilution alleles to a lesser extent and having longer snouts, but are far less available, with not even hundred individuals and only on Malta. The big disadvantage both breeds have are the very small horns. The horn size of Lidia already has to be improved (although some individuals, like these young bulls, have comparably large horns), and crossing-in one of these breeds would introduce alleles for very small horns, and since horn size is probably controlled by several gene loci it would be even more difficult to breed for the desired horn size. So it would be advantageous to add another breed to increase horn volume. Which breed would be best to do this job? One idea would be very large-horned Texas Longhorn with the right colour setting. However, the disadvantage would be that they are small-sized as well and have very outwards-facing horns. Another possibility are large-horned Heck cattle from lineages with a comparably stable inheritance; their disadvantages are their very domestic, heavy body and paedomorphic skulls. Using Watussi would greatly increase horn size, but also introduce many undesired traits concerning body shape, dewlap, colour, fleshy hump, skull shape et cetera, which is why this breed would have to be used wisely and with patience. If one cannot decide among existing stable breeds which one to chose in order to increase horn size, one could wait for other projects that are already in progress now to produce results that can be used for this job. Such as the Auerrind project, which has just started and is using Watussi. Perhaps in 15 years, when also a Lidia project would see first results, there might already be good Watussi-influenced Auerrind cattle that could be used in order to increase horn size in an improved Lidia strain without introducing too many undesired traits. This is just brainstorming – in practice it depends on many factors of course.

I would not suggest to start crossbreeding right from the beginning and to a larger extent, otherwise I would not be talking about a Lidia project here. It is about preserving, concentrating and improving the aurochs-like traits present within the Lidia population, and using other breeds only after a phase of selection when selective breeding has been proven to not being able to reach body size, leg length and horn size to a desirable degree. Another positive side effect of crossing-in other breeds would be that at least some individuals might display a more relaxed behaviour. I would use other breeds only carefully and perhaps use only F1 crossbred individuals in order to not diminish the advantageous Lidia traits. The point at which I would start to make use of such crossbreeds is when selective breeding has been shown to not reach all traits to a desirable extent, which would be after a couple of generations and therefore about 15 years or so (which would equal about five generations).

How could such an aurochs-like Lidia strain be named? For Maremmana, some people like to speak of the optically less derived individuals or herds of “Maremmana primitiva”, although those Maremmana primitiva do not represent one gene pool or breeding line. In the case of this Lidia lineage, on the other side, it would be one population/lineage. So perhaps calling them “Lidia primitiva” would be an idea.
I think that such a Lidia project could achieve a high level of authenticity regarding looks and anatomy and perhaps also behaviour (yes, exaggerated aggression is not “natural” behaviour; but tameness and docility are not either; you certainly could not have used an aurochs for draft work or have milked them). There is also the chance that with selection against exaggerated aggression and crossing-in of other breeds Lidia primitiva might once have a behaviour that is suitable to be used in grazing projects and other aurochs projects.

This post is just a thought-experiment, but I hope that it inspires and perhaps other people have similar ideas in order to make use of the potential we find in Spanish fighting cattle.


  1. I don't understand why people see so much trouble in the aggressiveness of the Lidia bull
    I mean, yes, it's tough to work with
    But, I seriously doubt that a Lidia bull is more aggressive than a Cape Buffalo, and you don't see people going in safaris to pet them like they would pet cows
    And Cape Buffalos only attack when they are
    A) Shot by a hunter
    B) Protecting it's calf
    C) Being surprised and panicked
    Other than that, they ignore human presence
    Anyways, I don't think that the aggressiveness of Lidia are that bad
    But that's just my opinion
    Great post, as an Spanish myself, I enjoyed it

    1. The problem is we don't have living aurochs to compare with. I personally see no reason why the aurochs should have been any less aggressive than other wild bovines; but I think that the aggression of Lidia is exaggerated due to selective breeding.
      But the #1 reason why the aggression of Lidia is that it makes them unhandable for grazing projects. The same goes for the wisent and would also go for a true aurochs. That's probably the reason why most grazing projects use cattle instead of wisent. And if a true aurochs was genetically recreated, I fear it would not be used as widespread as cattle, for that reason.

    2. The Auroch probably was as aggressive as an African Buffalo is
      Before humans came, an Auroch would have to deal daily with lions, hyenas and wolf's
      An Auroch would NEED to be aggressive to survive, because those are not predators you could send off easily
      Also, Greek and Roman texts cite the Auroch as an animal that would ignore you if you past by, but if you wounded it, it would turn very aggressive
      Like an African Buffalo
      I have only heard once of a Lidia hurting a human besides the Fighting
      I think that their aggressiveness is exaggerated
      But, as you said, it's not as easy to handle as other cattle

  2. Ok, let us take one Urochs into the arena, what do you think he is doing about? Let he be killed from the man, ore he killed the man?
    The spanish fighting bull is smaller than the auerochs, because of they can not always fight with so a great bull.
    It ist known that the race "fighting spanish bull" is around 200 years old, former they where greater and not so agressiv.

    Today there are good beginnings, but one can not think about good results inner ouer lifetime. The good rersults came later.

  3. Hello Daniel, thank you for this post it was missing a good article about the Iberian fighting cattle.
    The 3 main branches of this kind of cattle have each one theyr own characteristics, the Camargue, the Toro de Lidia and the portuguese Touro bravo. This last one is one of the least derived breeds and in Azores for example one can find a sub-breed that is bigger then the average Spanish fighting bull is called (Raça Brava dos Açores), you can find here a few nice photos: http://autoctones.ruralbit.com/?rac=85&esp=1&pais=pt
    And I can add that in Portugal there is a bigger version of the fighting iberian cattle that is not so agressive called (Raça Preta), here you have two nice links about it: http://www.racapreta.com.pt/index.php and this: http://autoctones.ruralbit.com/index.php?rac=33&esp=1&pais=pt
    For sure to more breeds to consider.
    My best regards to all of you.

    1. I don´t think that there´s evidence that the Azores one is bigger, but well remembered about Portuguese touro bravo, which is basically Iberian Fighting cattle, the Portuguese branch of Lidia, so to speak. So you cannot speak about it as a separate entity (all are Lidia basically).
      Not sure if the Portuguese one is less derived, but it´s surely not less primitive, than the Spanish version. To me they are basically the same on this regard (unless i´m proven wrong).
      Curiously Lidia cattle have been used as draft cattle (some individuals are much docile than the norm) but only very rarely and some are even regarded as pets (so selection on animals with no so aggressive behavior can truly be done).
      Also better would be to compare Iberian fighting cattle, with the Iberian aurochs in terms of size, because European Holocene aurochs, sounds a bit too vague to me... Iberian bull aurochs were said to be around 155-160 cm tall (at the shoulder). They could be a bit under or over this.
      So of course that Lidia is still well smaller and that would require selection and more selection (and I´m not sure if it would be enough, but that only time could tell).
      And I don´t think that Lidia is good enough to substitut other primitive breeds in Iberia, in possible local grazing projects. A primitive type of lidia, could be used though for habitats like the dehesa/montado and so on.
      While, I agree that some controlled crossbreeding could take place (though that would kill any production subsidies from local governments...), I think that most herds should be kept «pure», in order to make it interesting enough for enthusiasts/locals/cattle associations and to receive the considerable production finantial help from the governments.


    2. I agree and there´s no really need in going after Casta Navarra, to create a primitive type of Iberian Fighting cattle, when you have similar cattle spread in many parts of the Iberian Peninsula (but just don´t have all the attention and propaganda that Casta Navarra has).
      Also you either find what a certain breeder has for sale and choose from there, or it will be very difficult... Many fighting cattle breeders, don´t want to sell their cattle, even if you offer them a lot.

  4. I also think aggressiveness is greatly exaggerated. It also varies between individuals. They mostly ignore you in open ground.

  5. If a breed with "considerable disadvantages" will be the basis, then it's likely that it will be a lengthy procedure to get where one want's to.

  6. So there are cons and pros...however, the cows look really good. Because they look much bull-like, and it would be hard to get this expressed at this degree from other breeds. So i think these are the more interesting half of the breed.

    For horn-size maybe these could fit :
    (found the vid in this thread here :

  7. Do some traits have a higher chance to show up in Lidia-crosses if the Lidia-parent was the bull or the cow ?
    For example, are Lidia crosses more likely to express agressive behaviour if the bull contributed the Lidia-part ?
    And also for other traits, like musculature...

  8. The dewlaps of some of these cattle look like those shown in cave art.

    Well, in general it's said that Auroch was long-legged and had a short trunk, compared to (most) domestic cattle.
    So maybe it's not that scientific, however i looked at a thread[1]
    and picked up two photos of Auroch-skeletons :
    The Önnarp bull[2], from 10300BP,
    and the Store Damme bull[3], from 9520BP.
    And i compared it two the illustration of the skeleton of a a domestic cow.[4]
    I just dragged the pictures over each other and i'm somewhat surprised, becaused the proportions are that similar, regarding the length of the legs and the trunk, also there are not big differences regarding the neck.
    So both Aurochs are from scandinavia, from the Yoldian-Sea-stage.
    May this have been an adoption ? The glaciers were melting, so maybe it has been time for grazers ?
    About like : Longer trunk can house specialized intestines, to balance this shorter legs, also closer to the food now, no need for very long neck...but keep long snout not to get complicated with the horns.
    Hope i don't destroy romantic views here, but i'm curious about opinions.

    [1] http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9481868/122/
    [2] http://privat.bahnhof.se/wb206948/van1/lok300.html
    [3] https://ia800702.us.archive.org/BookReader/BookReaderImages.php?zip=/23/items/mobot31753002558473/mobot31753002558473_jp2.tar&file=mobot31753002558473_jp2/mobot31753002558473_0406.jp2
    [4] http://www.stirfrycentral.com/line_drawings/theobald_agricultural_zoology/cow_skeleton.html

    1. ...and I think the Torsac-Dirac-bull (France, 3000years) was close to some Lidia.
      Picked up this photo :
      and compared it to screenshots from the first video in the article, to the second bull (branded #13), took screenshots at 1:19 (for neck comparison) and 1:35 (body&legs).
      Maybe i'm wrong with the legs, there's another picture :
      and here they seem to be longer, because they are mounted in a different way.

    2. Well, i wondered about proportions, and so i compared more skeletons.
      I picked up photos from that carnivora-thread, of the scandinavion Aurochs from Vig, Ønnarp, Storedamme, Hammersløv (wich has a very short neck), the german Sassenberg and the french Torsac-Dirac. I think these were all about 10k years old, exept the last one, wich is 3k.
      I also used this illustration as a referende :
      Then i grapped some of the skeletons you, Daniel, showed here :
      Then i put everything into PS and scaled the images that way, that the spines (without neck) had about the same length.
      So for Auroch, there was little variation (exept Hammersløv).
      And for the domestic breeds the differences in the relation between frontlegs and spinelength was small, compared to the one between hindlegs and spinelength (regarding the length of the bones, ignored stance).
      Closest to the Aurochs weren't the long-legged domestic breeds, instead it was Braunvieh, Heck, Lidia and Maronesa.
      Because the long-legged ones had hindlegs longer than Aurochs (i compared to), mostly because the metatarsus-bone was elongated, haven't seen this at the Auroch-skeletons.
      So from these 4 breeds wich Auroch-like spine-leg-proportion the Heck also had a neck of the typical length, while Maronesa already seems to be somewhat long here, and Lidia and Braunvieh fall somewhat short (ignoring the Hammersløv-individual for comparison here).

    3. So about proportions again, i think maybe those who try to breed Auroch-like cattle may stick to long legs to compensate the lack of a sufficiant hump, so they can get closer to the relation of trunk-length to heigth-at-withers, as it was in Auroch.
      But they don't get the hump this way, and just add a trait that wasn't present in Auroch, thus stepping anatomically away from it.

      I think this video is interstiog, because one can see that figthing-cattle can become quite tame :
      So it could be the case that there is a wider range, some of these cattle may become tame, others not, and the tamer ones could get selected.
      But i think there may be another reason for this, that maybe this cattle is different in behavior from other cattle, that it's somewhat dog-like.
      That way that it can and must learn how to interact with humans, so it can estimate the situation and does not become agressive or maybe just tries to interact with humans the way they would interact with cattle.
      This would mean that they would make a pretty bad choice for rewildering.
      Because i think it would be like this :
      The Wolves got extinct, and now someone has the idea that Malinoise-dogs could be used for rewildering. They just need jaws like Amstaffs, longer teeth and because wolves could weight up to 90kg...
      Well, and maybe it would work in a way.

  9. Daniel,
    What about introducing Wisnet into the Taurus breeding back project to bring some of the desired traits of the Aurochs. In another post you identified Wisents as an Aurochs hybrid, so perhaps that would be a way to help along traits of dimorphism and size.