The Uruz is rising from the dead. Scientists are reviving the aurochs; the first herd is coming to the heart of Europe tomorrow
Hardly any other animal had such an importance for European history as the aurochs. An ancestor of domestic cattle, which is up to today the main source of milk and one of the main meat sources for mankind, it belonged to the main game of prehistoric hunters for thousands of years. Its horns decorated helmets of the bravest Germanic warriors, later in the Middle Ages they were wrought with gold and served as cups at king feasts.
Hunting by man and ever denser countryside settlement, however, led to the aurochs extermination; the last one died in 1627 in a king´s hunt at the Polish town of Jaktorow. With the arrival of genetics there also came an opportunity to revive this species. Since 2008 Project TaurOs of the Dutch Taurus Foundation has been working on backbreeding of aurochs in cooperation with scientists from Wageningen University. It uses several primitive European breeds which are closest to the aurochs in genetics and appearance.
“Now there are animals of the second and third generations at our disposal. Mainly the bulls already correspond quite well to aurochs male with their appearance,“ explains Dalibor Dostal, the Director of conservation organisation European Wildlife. Aurochs had mighty ivory light horns with black points. Their summer hair was smooth and short, for winter it got thicker and it lengthened noticeably. “The bulls were black with a light, sometimes yellowish dorsal stripe along the spine, a lighter tuft of longer hairs between horns and a white colouring around a mouth and nostrils, the female were brown to brown-red, similar to the calves,“ describes Miloslav Jirku from the Biological Centre of the Academy of Sciences.
It is just a stabilization of a different male and female appearance which is one of the aims of the backbreeding and which will be reached after several generations. “The animals which are coming are very young. As they are maturing, their physical parameters will get closer and closer to aurochs. Mainly the female colouring is still darker than was common with aurochs but these characteristics will still change in following generations,“ adds Dalibor Dostal. One bull and five young heifers are coming to Milovice, a former Soviet Army military area near Prague. The oldest animal is two years and a month old, the youngest is thirteen months old. They are coming by truck to Milovice from Holland during the night of Tuesday, 13th October and their release into an acclimatization enclosure will take place between 7 and 8 o´clock in the morning.
The backbred aurochs in Milovice will be the first herd in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, they will gain their primacy just of a few hours. The transport will continue further and it will take the other animals to the Danube delta in Romania. Besides home in Holland, the backbred aurochs have appeared so far in localities in southern Europe: in Faia Brava in Portugal, in Campanarios in Spain and in Croatian mountains the Velebit.
In Milovice the backbred aurochs will complete a group of fifteen wild horses which have been grazing the local steppe since this January. “Just the combination of the horses and the aurochs has the best effect on pasture maintenance. While the horses concentrate on grass, the aurochs in a bigger measure clear away self seeding woody plants and various herbs which are not eaten by the horses. This combined grazing prevents some plants to start prevailing to the detriment of others in the locality,“ explains Miloslav Jirku. By both animal species thus will be created a natural mosaic which is a refuge for many endangered animal species. The backbred aurochs will not be given complementary food in winter, alike the wild horses. Just clearing away of dry grass, so called old vegetation, has a very positive effect on plant biodiversity in the following vegetation season.
The first attempt of aurochs rebreeding was realized by the Heck brothers in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. They created the so called Heck cattle which are even today raised in some zoological gardens. The animals, however, neither correspond to the original aurochs with their overall constitution, colouring and size, nor with their horn shape and size. That is why the Dutch Taurus Foundation has started with the aurochs backbreeding again using the latest genetic analysis.
The auroch is also a pattern for the old Germanic rune Uruz, which was the second rune of the so called Germanic simple futhark. The Uruz or the auroch was in the rune writing a symbol of great strength and speed, but also strength and ability of a man who managed to hunt such a dangerous animal. The rune signified physical power, endurance, courage and freedom, in a figurative meaning then good health and male potency. The Uruz rune represents uncontrollable nature energy, influences luck and richness, however, not to the detriment of others but in favour of the whole.
Aurochs also have their place in Slavic mythology. Radegast, a Slavic God of hospitality, fertility and crop, connected with a war and the Sun, was dressed in an aurochs skin even with a skull with mighty horns.
Photo: Wikimedia / Henri Kerkdijk-Otten