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Bringing back Europe’s wild beef

Image of the horn of gondorIn the final scenes of JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, a besieged Boromir makes a desperate call for help by blowing on the Horn of Gondor, a sound that was said to have echoed over 100 miles to his home city of Minas Tirith. Too late, the horn is “cloven in two” and thus becomes emblematic of the fall of Gondor itself.

If current projects in Europe have anything to say about it, we may soon be able to (re)make this fabled horn from an animal similar to the aurochs that inspired Tolkien’s imagination.

Since 2008, the TaurOs Project has been breeding cattle in an effort to resurrect the aurochs, a large, athletic species of cattle that once roamed across mainland Europe and parts of Asia. The last aurochs died in 1627, but many of its genes survive in modern-day European breeds, which are now being used to “back breed” to the aurochs – or as close as the team of geneticists, ecologists, molecular biologists, archaeologists, zoologists, historians and breeding experts can get.

Another similar venture, the Uruz Project, is also seeking the same end goal.

These are not the first instances of aurochs back-breeding projects. A rather infamous breed of cattle, created in the 1920s and 30s, in part through the support and direction of the Nazi regime, also aimed to re-create the aurochs. The resulting Heck’s cattle have been controversial, not merely because of their political origin, but also because the cattle selected for inclusion in the back breeding effort were primarily chosen for their physical resemblance to the extinct aurochs, not for other key traits. Unlike the aurochs, Heck’s cattle are known to be aggressive, and their DNA reveal that they are less like aurochs than other currently surviving breeds. Nevertheless, Heck's cattle do serve as a guidepost for current efforts.

Image of an aurochsBoth modern teams have the advantage of about 80 years of genetic advancements at their disposal, including the fully sequenced genome of aurochs, taken from a 6,700-year-old bone discovered in an English cave, which serves as the basis for ongoing comparison of breeding efforts. The chief differences between the two modern initiatives are a different selection of cattle used for breeding purposes (see lists here and here) and the integration of gene-editing in the Uruz Project, which will allow them to either remove or insert sections of DNA in order to get a desired result.

Bringing back the aurochs is less about meat and farming than it is about biodiversity. Whether by design or happenstance, ultimately, both are tied to a larger rewilding movement in Europe. As North Americans struggle to balance land development against the fracturing of large pieces of wilderness, Europeans are taking advantage of a rise in farmland abandonment to reclaim wild spaces and reintroduce some of the keystone species that once roamed there, such as aurochs, wild horses, bison and red deer.

Assuming European law will allow what is currently considered a domesticated animal to become “wild”, the first of these herds of grazers could be introduced in as few as 10 years, or 6-7 generations. At least that’s how long the TaurOs Project leader, ecologist Ronald Goderie, predicts is required to get their current herds closer to their extinct ancestors. In an interview quoted in a mother nature network article, he said:

“What you see already in the second generation is that the coloration of the animal is very aurochs-like," he described. "The bulls are black and have an eel stripe [along the spine]. They’re already higher on the legs. What’s more complicated is the size and shape of the horns. I would say that in some cases, you can see an individual animal is 75 percent of where we need to get at."

Obtaining a perfect genetic match to the aurochs is not something that even the TaurOs team expects to achieve, and may not even be an ideal animal for the Europe it would live in 400 years after the last one drew breath. But, mythical cloven horns aside, there’s a lot of imagination – and a lot to be learned and gained – in the process.

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Top image: Movie still from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring 2001
Bottom image: Aurochs by Charles Hamilton Smith, circa 1826, from Wikimedia Commons

Bringing back Europe’s wild beef

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