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Cornelia Doerr / Wild Wonders of Europe

The comeback of the European icon

Rewilding Europe and the Taurus Foundation have today signed a long-term agreement about helping to preserve biodiversity in Europe through a breeding programme to bring back a functional, wild version of the Aurochs. The Aurochs is the ancestor of all domestic cattle in the world and was for hundreds of thousands of years a keystone-species in many European ecosystems.

Although the species was sadly hunted to its extinction in 1627, its genes are still very much alive today, however spread out over a number of cattle breeds. The aim of The Tauros Programme is to back-breed the closest relatives to the original Aurochs, and to build up viable wild populations of this impressive animal in several locations in Europe. This is done in close cooperation with scientific institutions from Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and US.

Europe’s history is very closely connected to the Aurochs. Not only because of the Greek myth of the founding of Europe, where the God Zeus in the shape of a bull seduces and kidnaps a beautiful virgin princess called Europa from the Middle East, and brings her to Crete – a symbolic way to explain that the taming of these wild cattle was one of the most important steps in the economic history of our continent. Ever since, domesticated cattle have been the most valuable of all animals to the Europeans. Often forgotten, however, is that the wild Aurochs also played a key role for Europe’s biodiversity, greatly impacting on the vegetation where it lived. Hundreds of plant and animal species developed in co-evolution with the vast herds of these Europe’s heaviest land mammals and other large grazers. For hundreds of thousands of years Europe’s ecosystems benefited from and were shaped by the strong influence from wild and free living herds of Aurochs, together with other large herbivores, like European bison, wild horses, deer or ibex. During the last four-five thousand years a somewhat similar grazing impact was continued through the vast herds of now domesticated livestock, totally dominating most landscapes.

But today, after all these millennia of un-interrupted grazing, first by wild and then by domesticated large herbivores, vast parts of Europe are now facing farmland abandonment at a scale never experienced before.

– “The farmland abandonment is a socio-economic tragedy, no question about it. It is also  to an extent a biodiversity disaster for many species connected to the open landscapes,” explains Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe.  – “At the same time, it offers new opportunities to allow wild nature to take back at least some of its role in several European regions. For wildlife to once again be able to shape nature in all its richness and at the same time attract millions of people who pay their way to enjoy it, creating the basis for a new, additional kind of rural economy, where wildlife and wild nature might show out to be much more valuable than several of our traditional ways of using and managing nature. The Aurochs is one of the missing keystone species, a species that had and has a key ecological role to play, but that most of us seem to have forgotten about.”

Luckily, the descendants of the Aurochs survived and in the millions, but as domesticated cattle. In many cases bred to the extreme to produce milk, beef or to provide work power. However, in some corners of Europe, local cattle breeds retained many of their ancestral primitive characteristics.

– “The central idea of the Tauros Programme is to identify these animals and to back-breed them again into a fully self-sufficient, wild-living cattle species, that genetically come as close as ever possible to the original,” explains Ronald Goderie, a board member of the Taurus Foundation.  – “In several universities work is being carried out to unravel the DNA from the extinct Aurochs. The first results are available so we can compare it with the genes analysed from 30 of the most primitive bovine breeds in Europe. The rest is really just about classic breeding work, but done in the other direction. The end result might not become an identical copy of the Aurochs, of course, but we will come very close. Therefore, for the time being, we call the animal the “Tauros”. The Tauros will resemble and function ecologically just like the Aurochs did, which after more than 250 000 years of evolution had turned into an animal perfectly designed for its European environment. We have now selected six of the primitive cattle breeds to start working with, each of them having many of the typical Aurochs characteristics.”

The Taurus Foundation will take care of the breeding programme and Rewilding Europe will be in charge of the rewilding and reintroduction aspects of it.

Around 2025, the Tauros are expected to again have the right characteristics of the Aurochs –  the genetics, colour, size, behaviour, way of grazing and the full survival capacity in the wild. By then the animal is expected to have been officially recognized as a wildlife species and released back into the wild in a number of areas, starting off within the Rewilding Europe initiative. The first breeding results look very promising, so most likely already within just a couple of years there will be herds that will begin to look and function very much like the original Aurochs-herds once did. Rewilding areas in the Netherlands, in Iberia and in Eastern Europe will serve as the first pilots for the bigger programme. Thanks to a generous grant from the Swedish Postcode Foundation, Rewilding Europe and The Taurus Foundation are able to start their joint work on the Tauros project right away.

The Taurus Foundation is a private Dutch organization that uses feral cattle and horses in nature management and natural grazing schemes. In their choice for certain cattle and horse breeds, they use the hardiest breeds, that best serve their ecological role: that means the most authentic ones. During the foundation’s twenty years of experience, they have learned that none of the current cattle breeds is the optimal grazer to be used in wilderness areas. The best choice for European wild nature would undoubtedly be the Aurochs.

The Tauros programme has a broad, multidisciplinary scientific base, including geneticists, ecologists, molecular biologists, archaeologists, archaeozoologists, historians, aurochs experts, cattle experts and European cattle breeding organizations.

For more information, see our fact sheet about the Tauros Programme.

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