Aurochs The Aurochs – pronounced ‘our ox’ - Bos primigenius (meaning "primeval ox”) was the ancestor of all domestic cattle. They were once widely distributed throughout Europe, North Africa and South Asia. Aurochs were much larger than modern cattle: Bulls stood more than 6 foot at their shoulders and their horns could be six feet long. They were black in colour with long legs, a deep chest, curly hair on their foreheads and a light dorsal stripe along their spine.  The smaller cows were a red/dun colour with a black heads, necks and legs. From the earliest times Aurochs were hunted by man for their meat, hides and horns. They were painted on the walls of the prehistoric caves at lascaeux and Julius Caesar described them as being in size “Smaller than elephants; in appearance they are as bulls. Great is their strength and great is their speed ….. the Germans slay these zealously, by taking them in pits: by such work the young men harden themselves, and those who have slain most of them bring the horns with them …. and win great renown. The natives collect them zealously and encase the edges with silver, and then at their greatest banquets use them as drinking cups”.  Habitat loss and competition with domestic livestock in the early middle ages rapidly constricted the range of the Aurochs. In Poland the last remaining herd was gathered up and confined to Jaktovowka game reserve for their protection in 1565. In the 17th century a combination of disinterest, corruption, poaching competition with domestic cattle and disease gradually reduced the remaining herd to a single surviving cow. She remained alone for the final 7 years of her life before her death in 1627.  Aurochs in Britain Aurochs were once widespread in mainland Britain. Their skulls have been found in the Brochs of Caithness and a bull’s skeleton with both horns cut off was excavated under Royal Holloway University in London. The 17th century excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial ship in Suffolk uncovered an Auroch horn which was 9 inches in diameter and had been used as a drinking cup. Within the ship the central iron firebox was decorated with the heads of four Aurochs bulls with their horns upturned at the corners. A few British place names such as Strath-uri-dale or Urpeth (the path of the urus - urus being the Latin word for Aurochs) in Durham still record their former presence.   Although Auroch bones which have been dated to the 4th century AD have been discovered at Caernarfon it is impossible to tell when the last of these wild cattle were destroyed. References to Tauri sylvestres (forest bulls) and bubali (bison) linger in forest records until the early middle ages. In the days of Edward the Confessor the “spacious woods, thick and large “of the Chilterns were known to be the habitat of “various beasts, wolves, boars, forest bulls and stags”.  One of the first English Poems ‘the rune song’ was written about the Aurochs horns: The Aurochs is proud and extravagantly horned; A very fierce beast, it fights with its horns, Marching mightily across the moors, It is a most courageous creature. The Runic letter which corresponded with our letter ‘u’, was called ‘ur’ due its resemblance to the shape of the Auroch’s horns. At Porlock Bay in Somerset, after storms in 1996 the shingle ridge subsided and revealed bones of the Porlock Aurochs within the layers of silt.  The bones recovered were of the pelvis, some ribs and a backbone from a 10 year old bull dating to 1500 BC. The Porlock Auroch was reconstructed by the villagers and holiday makers and took part in the carnival in 2002 Aurochs and bison In both modern and medieval time’s European bison or wisent – pronounced we sent - were commonly misidentified as Aurochs. The naturalist Pliny writing in Roman times knew the difference between the bison “with his shaggy mane” and the Aurochs “with his terrible horns” as they were both familiar to him as fighting beast of the arenas. Heck Cattle During the war Hermman Goering, the head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe supported the efforts of two German zoo directors - the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck - in their attempt to recreate the extinct Auroch. In the 1920s the Heck brothers argued that if the domestic descendants of an extinct species were still abundant then the genes of their wild founder must still exist. Selection for the characteristics of the founder through back breeding would allow these genes to re-emerge and the wild ancestor could be recreated. Heinz Heck, cross-bred highland cattle with animals from Corsica and Hungary, while his brother was crossed Spanish and French fighting bulls.  This experiment produced calves within a few generations which were similar in colour to the cave paintings and developed the fierce temperament of the extinct Aurochs.  Although after the war most of these cattle were destroyed a few herds survived in game parks band it is from these founders that modern Heck Cattle are descended.  Heck Cattle in Devon Here in Devon we have a herd of 13 Heck Cattle imported from Holland and Belgium in 2008.  This is the first time that the Heck cattle have been imported into Britain and we hope to be ultimately able to supply them as grazing animals for nature reserves and “rewilding” projects. Though the breed has a poor reputation as being bad tempered there are many herds in Europe which are drawn from manageable individuals and we intend to repeat this selection process at Upcott Grange.   Heck Cattle are widely used as a nature conservation grazing tool with one of the most famous herds occupying the splendid ‘Oostvaardersplassen’ reserve near Amsterdam. Links: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article6143767.ece http://www.thisiswesternmorningnews.co.uk/environment/Westcountry- farm-home-German-super-cows/article-918369-detail/article.html
Aurochs – according to Topsell
Bison – according to Topsell
The Porlock Aurochs
Hermman Goering
Aurochs on a cave painting in Lascaux, France.
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