Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Legacy of the Aurochs


In 1627, the last aurochs died in Poland. The largest mammal to walk on the European Continent after the demise of the Woolly Mammoth, their population was brought down by increased domestication, interbreeding, disease and old age. But their lineage has not fallen to the same fate; aurochs genes are alive and well on almost every continent on earth. So what, exactly, is an aurochs? 

To answer this we must look at an animal that is well known to anyone reading this blog: Aberdeen Angus Cattle. Today, they stand among the top beef producers in the world (arguably often leading the charge), with a renown exemplified by the careful selection that goes into their breeding and upbringing. Yet I often can’t help but wonder when I look at an impressive Angus bull or a group of newborn calves…where did it all begin?
I’m not going to lie, my background in agriculture and ranching is pretty limited. I fortunately do not fall into the category of young people who have never seen a cow, but my childhood experiences were pretty well limited to our local rodeo and the herd of Herefords that were always released up behind my house in the springtime. Those large, lumbering beasts would come in waves around the back fence of our property, and on occasion we would be woken in the middle of the night by a cow who was mournfully mooing for her lost calf. One hot summer, two of my friends and I hopped on the ATV and went for a ride up the old logging road behind my house, only to come across the herd grazing calmly in a clearing. Little did we know that, for them, an ATV often meant fresh hay, and we were chased out of there by a stampede of what must’ve been very eager cattle anticipating a treat we didn’t possess. 

As an Art History and Visual Studies major, I’ve spent a lot of my time (and education) evaluating images and researching the history behind events, people and art. If I go as far back in my memory as Art History 101, among the initial classes I ever took at University, the first images I studied were of the bulls painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France. It’s remarkable the information you can accumulate, and my understanding of cattle became much more in depth the further I strode into my degree. One need only think of the myths of Greece and the Minotaur or of the bull-headed Apis God of Egypt to see that cattle have been revered for thousands of years. But, as I discovered last summer, the selected breeding for the Aberdeen Angus cattle only began in the mid-to-late 19th century. So what, exactly, were they selected from?

This is where the aurochs come in. Although the last pure aurochs was registered as extinct in 1627 (and was, in fact, the first animal to ever be official recorded as such), their genetics had been bred into the local breeds of domesticated and significantly more docile cattle for generations. The often six foot high, lean, aggressive and intimidatingly horned aurochs did not allow nor generate an appeal for domestication by themselves, but by breeding selectively for their more appealing traits – i.e. ruggedness, size, and local environmental adaptation – they were prime genetics. Subsequently, the aurochs gene can be found in every single breed of cattle on earth, with yak, gayal and Bali cattle being the only exceptions. In fact it is the aurochs that all first-year Art History students will see when studying those caves in Lascaux.
Today, scientists are attempting to ‘back breed’ present-day cattle in order to revive the aurochs. An exact replica will never be possible, but the newly labelled ‘Taurus’ cattle come mighty close – with significantly reduced aggression. Long legs, lean bodies, curved horns and elongated faces are starting to roam the European countryside in an attempt by conservationists to help the ecosystem get back on track. Their grazing on tough plants inedible to other species and heavy tread help keep grasslands available and plant species in check. 

As for our beloved Aberdeen Angus? Well, let’s just say that their pleasant demeanour, excellent meat quality and stocky stature are not quite fitting for their European counterpart. They’ve come a long way from the ancient aurochs, and - along with innovative breeders - have created a legacy all their own.

Written by Kiani Evans