The aurochs is the ancestor of all cattle and thereby the most important animal in the history of mankind. It is also a keystone species for many European ecosystems, but was hunted to its extinction in 1627. However, its DNA is still alive, but distributed among a number of the ancient original cattle breeds. “The Tauros Programme” aims to bring back the aurochs as a functional wild animal, by back-breeding the closest relatives of the original aurochs.
Grazing the landscapes of Europe, the auroch – Europe’s original wild bovine species – once played a vital role in maintaining biodiversity. Today, nearly four centuries after the animal’s extinction, pioneering efforts by Rewilding Europe and the Taurus Foundation are seeing this benefcial herbivore brought back to life.
Back to the future
As the ancestor of all domesticated cattle, it is hard to think of a more important animal in the history of mankind than the auroch. Once widespread across Europe, it was a keystone species within many of the continent’s ecosystems. But by 1627 this impressive animal had been hunted to extinction across its entire range. The auroch may be long gone, yet all is not lost.
Today strands of its DNA remain alive, distributed among a number of ancient cattle breeds that still exist across Europe. Rewilding Europe, together with the Dutch Taurus Foundation, in 2013 embarked on a programme to bring the auroch back to life.
For millions of years, European land has been grazed – by wild herbivores, and, far more recently,by domestic cattle. This grazing has kept parts of the land free from forest, providing open habitats that support a wide range of plants and animals. But today a decline in animal husbandry across Europe means these habitats, and their biodiversity, are in danger of disappearing. This is where the auroch, or its latter-day descendant – the so-called “Tauros” – comes in. Through selective breeding, Rewilding Europe and its partners want tauros to occupy the niche the auroch once filled, keeping Europe’s rich mosaic of open landscapes flourishing through natural grazing.
The Tauros Programme started in 2008 with the aim of creating the modern-day equivalent of a long-dead animal. The programme’s principal technique is “back-breeding”: by combining cattle breeds with desired characteristics, a herbivore can be created with physical attributes, behaviour and genetics that closely match those of Europe’s original wild auroch. Today, many old European cattle breeds still retain a genetic similarity to the auroch. Following the selection of six or seven such breeds from an original list of over 30, the first animals were purchased and transported to the Netherlands for breeding. The Tauros Programme comprises four phases (see table below). Apart from natural breeding in social (family) groups, artificial insemination techniques are also used in the initial phase to accelerate the breeding process and enable highly specific genetic combinations. The breeding programme is founded on a broad, multidisciplinary scientific base, including geneticists, ecologists, molecular biologists, archaeologists, archaeo-zoologists, historians, isotope experts, cattle experts and European cattle breeding organizations.
The final goal of the programme, to be met in some 20 years, is the presence of the Tauros as a self-sufficient wild bovine grazer in herds of at least 150 animals each in several rewilding areas in Europe.
Rewilding Europe took the decision to team up with the Taurus Foundation in 2013. Our aim is to populate rewilding areas (where possible) with Tauros, harnessing the animals’ ability to maintain and boost biodiversity. The Tauros Foundation manages the technical aspects of breeding, while Rewilding Europe is responsible for the programme’s rewilding component. The Tauros Programme has already made significant progress. By the end of 2015 around 450 animals were involved, grazing in expanding areas of more than 6,000 ha in the Netherlands, Western Iberia, Velebit and the Danube Delta. The pie chart gives an overview of the total number of animals by generation (F0 represents the starting generation, F1 the second generation, etc.).
The main breeds currently present in rewilding areas are the Spanish Sayaguesa, Portuguese Maronesa, Italian Maremmena primitiva and Croatian Boskarin, although the Spanish Pajuna, Scottish Highland cattle and Spanish Limia have also been used. Since we aim to incorporate local breeds if they have desirable features, the number of breeds involved in the programme may increase slightly going forwards. In general, all F0 animals have coped well with new conditions in the rewilding areas. To mitigate the effects of their translocation, the animals are watched closely for the first few years, especially at wintertime. For instance, the winter of 2015–16 was harsh in the Lika Plains (Velebit Mountain region) with heavy falls of snow, so animals here received hay. We are also pleased to see Maronesa cattle in Faia Brava doing surprisingly well on the steep slopes of the Côa Valley (Western Iberia), despite the quite poor nutritional value of local vegetation.
The road ahead
In 2010, the Tauros Programme began cooperating with Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) in the Netherlands. Financed by WUR, around 30 ancient cattle breeds were genetically analysed, giving new insight into their genetic make-up. In 2015, the outcome of this research was compared with the complete genome of the first ever sequenced aurochs (using a 6,700-yearold fossil). We were delighted when this research confirmed the choice of breeds for the Tauros Programme. One of the next steps is to compare the genetic composition of Tauros Programme offspring with the genome of the original auroch. To this end, 200 offspring animals were analysed in 2014, and another 200 in early 2016. Rewilding Europe would ultimately like Tauros to be present in five of its main rewilding areas, and they may soon be introduced to the Oder Delta. We will continue to monitor their effect on local biodiversity.
More about the aurochs
The aurochs was one of Europe’s most important mammal species. It was the continent’s heaviest land mammal, after the woolly rhinoceros and woolly mammoth, with bulls weighing in excess of 1,000 kilos.
In the Greek myth about the founding of Europe, Zeus in the form of an aurochs bull seduces and kidnaps the beautiful princess Europa. Since then the aurochs and its descendants – our present day cattle breeds – have played an important role in the making of Europe. Zeus the bull and Europa can today be found on the Greek two Euro coin. The building of the Council of Europe in Brussels has chosen the same symbol: a statue of Europa and the bull.
The aurochs once roved virtually all across Europe: from the southern part of Scandinavia to North Africa, from the UK all the way into Central Asia. The ecological influence of all these grazing animals on the vegetation was significant. After the last Ice age, however, things started to change because of modern man.
The aurochs stood almost 180 cm tall and due to its long legs and slender build was an agile animal. Its long, thick horns, speed and bulk weight provided powerful means of defense, and adult aurochs could give large predators such as wolves a serious match. The cows were considerably smaller than the bulls and chestnut brown in colour. Calves were born chestnut-coloured, with bull calves changing coat colour after a few months for a very deep brown or black, with a whitish eel stripe running down the spine. Typical for both sexes was the lightly coloured mouth part.
The aurochs was an impressive animal, perfectly adapted to the diversity of landscapes it inhabited, ranging from open steppes and semi-deserts to more savannah-like landscapes, marshlands, several kinds of forest and mountains far above the timberline. Thus it seems to have lived in most habitats encountered in Europe except in the boreal forest zones – pretty much as domestic cattle do today.
The only real reason why the aurochs disappeared was because man hunted it to extinction. First for meat, but when man later brought in domestic cattle, it was also an intentional extermination because of grazing competition from the aurochs. The last aurochs individual died in Jaktorów in Poland 1627.
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 and ibex. During the last four-five thousand years a somewhat similar grazing impact was continued through the vast herds of domesticated livestock that totally dominated most landscapes. But today, after all these millennia of uninterrupted grazing, vast parts of Europe are facing pasture and farmland abandonment at a scale never experienced before. A wilder Europe really needs herds of fully self-sufficient, wild bovines to prevent further loss of the biodiversity of the open areas.
Download the Tauros programme fact sheet here: