Monday, 26 June 2017

A response to a nonsensical blog article

Back in 2015, I had a slightly emotional rant about something that keeps on entertaining especially the English-speaking world: the “nazi cow nonsense”. Such an absurd headline is the result of people not caring about historical facts and just wanting to be entertained by or to entertain with something that sounds as absurd as a “nazi super cow”. A discreet tip: if you are about to write a headline that ludicrous, you might take one moment and scrutinize.

Anyway, in my 2015 article I covered the true motivation behind the Heck brothers’ attempts and the connection with single officials of the Nazi regime. Some weeks ago, I was addressed to a blog article written one month after my 2015 article that contains a lot of claims and mistakes that slightly upset me. I found no commentary function so I use my own blog for writing a clarification. The article has a nonsensical title, on the blog homidlikeme. I go over the mistakes and wrong claims step by step. Why is it important to dismantle defamations like that? Because it does have an effect on the world outside, people working on project might develop objections against breeding-back or breeds resulting from breeding-back as a result of these nonsensical stories, so you might do real damage by spreading it.

First of all, the author of the blog managed to misinterpret my graphic on Wikimediacommons showing a life restoration of an aurochs bull and cow. Although stated very clearly, he mistook it for a comparison between an aurochs and a Heck bull (obviously he cannot tell the difference between a male and female bovine).
Amusingly, the author also assumes that aurochs were killed off in an act of self-defence from those “un-friendly forest creatures”.

The author of the article claims that the German dictator “suggested that resurrecting an extinct megabeasts[sic] would be good for national morale (i.e. propaganda)”, which is plain wrong, invented nonsense. There is no evidence that this man ever heard of the project of the Heck brothers, not to mention ever spoke a sentence containing “aurochs”. He did not know about the project, and if he would have known, he would very likely not have cared about it. In contrast to Herman Göring.
The author further writes “Heinz and Lutz Heck were already keen on the idea of reverse-engineering a copy of the extinct Aurochs, and the money and breeding stock the Nazi war machine could provide as it steam-rolled over Europe gave them everything they needed to get started”. Plain wrong, do your history homework or at least read the Wikipedia article! The Heck brothers started their work in the 1920s, and their motivation was free of any ideological nonsense and not commanded from some Nazi official. While it is true that Lutz Heck actively profited from having the hunting-fanatic Göring on his side, his brother Heinz, whose stock is the base of all living Heck cattle, evidently avoided contact with the regime.

With the sentence “Heck cattle can reach a maximum height of 1.4m and a weight of 600kg, which makes them one of the largest breeds of domestic cattle available”, the author exposes his lack of basic knowledge about cattle. Those size data make Heck cattle average, compared to modern day cattle of intensified agriculture actually smaller, cattle. He probably never stood next to a living bull if he considers the height of 1.4 that gigantic.

Then, the author quotes the statement of UK farmer Derek Gow saying that his Heck herd were the most aggressive animals he ever worked with. I already discussed the temperament of Heck cattle in this post. Cattle behaviour depends a lot on socialisation, also in Heck cattle. If you take Heck cattle from a grazing project, that are used to have a lot of space and are not used to being handled like farm cows, and you do not have experience in keeping cattle stemming from those circumstances, you should not be surprised that you are unable to handle them.

Now I want to address a few words to the author directly: claiming that the Heck brothers attempts were “performed in a grossly unethical way” baseless and does not make any sense, claiming the breed has a “genocidal past” is a repelling defamation and an insult to all grazing projects and Heck cattle breeders working with this cattle breed. You might not be aware of this, but writing stories like that can actually do real damage to actual projects in the world outside. So next time before writing something absurd like “nazi super cows”, please do the required homework or just keep your mouth closed.

Ironically you write “Heck cattle have struggled to overcome their association with the Nazi regime”. Exactly, because of people behaving like you.

PS.: The “what the Heck” pun is getting old.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

New anatomical sketches of aurochs bulls

Last week I did some new anatomical sketches based on a number of bull skeletons – the Sassenberg bull, Braunschweig bull, Vig bull and Kopenhagen bull. As usual, I chose photos of the skeletons available on the internet or books, corrected certain aspects if necessary (f.e. the placement of the shoulder blade or flexion of the hind legs is often wrong in mounted skeletons), tracked the skeletons out and reconstructed the life appearance of the animals with a ballpoint pen. I would have done the same with other skeletons as well, so that I don’t always do the same individuals, but for many of the other skeletons I was not able to find photos that allowed to correct the mistakes in the mounts and therefore a life reconstruction would not be fruitful. There is also quite a lack of mounted aurochs cow skeletons in museums, otherwise I would have done a series for cows as well.

The photos of the skeletons for the Braunschweig and Sassenberg bull were scanned from Walter Frisch’s book Der Auerochs (2011), the Kopenhagen bull is based on a photo I was sent by Markus Bühler and the Vig bull sketch is based on this photo, on which I corrected the position of the hind leg to what I consider anatomically correct.

It is hard to guess how bulky the animal was in life without getting a three-dimensional impression of the ribcage, so I had to guess for the abdomen. Also, the older the bull the heavier. Because of that, I chose to illustrate the bulls as fully grown but not too old. Something that is always the same in all living wild cattle, no matter which genus (be it Bos, Bison, Syncerus or Bubalus) is that the waist is always narrower than the belly, producing a more or less trapezoidal body shape. Since this trait is universal in living wild bovines, we must assume it was also the case for the aurochs. Only in the Sassenberg bull sketch I experimented with a less slanting line of the baculum, giving it a bit more “domestic” look. A trait that is very obvious in all aurochs skeletons are the high shoulder spines, creating a hump in life that is also universal to all wild bovines. The Sassenberg bull seems to have had the smallest hump in this selection, and the Kopenhagen bull the largest. All in all, the Kopenhagen bull probably looked like a large, massive and athletic Spanish fighting bull in life, also because its horns are not as large and wide-ranging as in the other skeletons. This bull, if it was black, might be a good comparison.

Looking at the existing cattle breeds on this world, Spanish fighting cattle (Lidia) and Corriente might have the overall morphology that comes closest to the aurochs. However, it is also likely that morphology adapts after several generations living under wild condition as a result of natural selection and phenotypic plasticity (f.e. see here).

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Taurus bulls of Olaf Nowacki

With this post, I want to give a portrait for two interesting Taurus bulls which both were born in the Lippeaue and purchased by Olaf Nowacki. Olaf Nowacki was a Taurus cattle breeder from Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany who had a passion for the aurochs. At first, he started with Heck cattle, but decided that he wanted to have larger animals, so he purchased two young Taurus bulls from the ABU in 2008, one named Lupio and the other one later to be called Arnulf. My attention to these bulls was drawn when I discovered a photo of Arnulf on a Facebook page claiming it was a Heck x Chianina bull reaching 170cm at the shoulders. I had an email correspondence with Mr. Nowacki’s daughter Judith Fiedler, who kindly provided me with lots of information and photos and then I decided to do portraits about those interesting bulls. Many thanks!

At first I was sceptical of a size of 170cm for both bulls, but I was told that Mr. Nowacki measured both bulls with a yard stick and since we found out that the Hellinghauser Mersch breeding bull 42 623 reaches 170cm at least, I happily consider it absolutely plausible. Taurus cattle are simply large cattle. Lupio was accidentally poisoned by the neighbour in 2013 unfortunately, and Arnulf was sold last year. Now I am going to give a portrait for the bulls respectively.

All photos, unless stated otherwise, were kindly provided by Judith Fiedler, so please do not use without permission.


As I said, I discovered that bull on Facebook.  The source was claiming that Arnulf was a Heck x Chianina, and I did not believe that for two main reasons: it was obviously a bull from the Lippeaue, and no animals of that combination were born there since the 2000s, and it did not look like that at all. It looked much more like a Sayaguesa cross. So I asked Mrs. Fiedler for the ear tag number of the bull so that I could trace down its descent in the Lippeaue stock lists. It turned out that Arnulf is a son of Lombriz (50% Sayaguesa, 50% Heck x Sayaguesa) and Lale (half Heck x Sayaguesa half Heck x Chianina), and therefore a third-generation wild mix of the three main breeds making up Taurus cattle.

As you see on the photos, he had a correct aurochs bull colour without dilutions or saddle. His horn curvature is acceptable average as well. However, his legs are short by aurochs standards (or the trunk long, depending on the way you look at it). I was told that he was very gentle in behaviour.
The photo below shows a son of Arnulf at the age of three years. I think especially the Chianina descent is obvious in its body shape, head and horns (compare f.e. here).


This bull must have been a very impressive sight. He was a son of Lucio (Heck x Sayaguesa) and the Chianina cow Eloisa, and had a well-developed hump, a correct black colour and horns of a good curvature that were not all that tiny – all in all he resembled his father quite well, a surprising fact considering his half-Chianina descent.
Lupio as a very young bull, photo by Matthias Scharf from the ABU

Monday, 19 June 2017

Summer is coming!

Today I finished my last exam for this semester, what means that for me, summer has begun. This also means that the months of lethargy on this blog are over; I am going to fabricate a number of blogposts and artworks as soon as a I can. So for today, this is what you can expect to come during the next weeks:
  • A post on the genetic background of morphological traits and its implications for breeding
  • Some posts (or one big post) on the big question “Ancient Europe: one big forest or savannah?”
  • Portraits of two interesting bulls
  • Some more artworks and reconstructions on paper
  • The finishing of my new aurochs models (WIP photos about to come)  
  • I am going to start doing another aurochs horn model scale 1:1. Perhaps, but I am not sure yet if I will find the time and money, also a complete aurochs bull head 1:1 in trophy style.

Of course these ideas do cost me some time and effort, especially the upper two require a lot of literature and web research I was not capable of during the semester, but I promise that I am going to do my best during the next weeks. I have also been planning to some more general posts and also get in more species diversification, I just never got to it in the past. But I am going to try getting to it this time.

My third trip to the Lippeaue

By the end of April, I visited the Lippeaue, Germany, again and met with the workers of the ABU Soest to have a look at the Taurus cattle herds and discuss. As usual, it was a very enjoyable and informative trip and I took a lot of photos. Please don't use them without permission. 

What has changed since 2015

The two years since I visited the herds the last time in fall 2015 saw some deaths of good individuals unfortunately (Liberta, Lambada) but also a number of calves turned into interesting animals. As a whole, the herds were quite a bit less numerous compared to 2015 and 2013 sinc a lot of individuals were sold because the herds got too big (now there are about 85 individuals in total grazing in the Lippeaue). Two herds have new breeding bulls: Disselmersch and Klostermersch-Süd. The former bull at Disselmersch, a son of Laokoon and Larissa, was slaughtered because of his small Chianina-like horns shortly after I visited the herd. Londo, the former breeding bull at Klostermersch-Süd, was slaughtered too last year. He was too dachshund-legged and small overall, and all of his offspring turned out to be dachshund-legged as well – this an interesting and actually not all that negative fact. Londo was one of the very few “true F2” crosses, and even a cross between siblings, so I predicted him to be to be stable for a number of traits that he possessed – the good ones just as much as the undesired ones. The fact that all of his offspring shared his dachshund-leggedness shows that the concept working with “true F” crosses actually works, it just happened to work on an undesired trait. Having luck with another true F2 and using it as a breeding bull might stabilize the herd in a desirable way. The new breeding bull at Klostermersch-Süd will be introduced in the section “the herds”. We did not have enough time for Disselmersch this time unfortunately, but I saw a photo of the new bull, and it looked pretty good.

Breeding-strategies – why still back-crossing?

In the past we already discussed why limitations of area size, conservational aspects, animal welfare as much as practical obstacles make it impossible to shift to a completely different breeding scheme in the Lippeaue (or all other grazing projects, by the way), f.e. such as trying a “true F2” scheme as described in this post. Further problems would be a high degree of inbreeding and a high portion of animals not suitable for further breeding. However, I suggested that paying attention on producing single “true F” individuals that look good and using them as breeding animals might speed up the process without any additional costs or effort. While that may or may not be true, Margret Bunzel-Drüke told me that she would be cautious on increasing the degree of inbreeding that much in a cattle herd, because of the danger of fixating deleterious alleles. Cattle are not laboratory mice, after all. Nevertheless, “true Fs” are still produced in the Lippeaue, but coincidentally; f.e. the breeding bull “Laokoon’s brother” is placed among two cows of the same breed combination as he is.
Another aspect that we discussed is back-crossing with the founding breeds. The Lippeaue population actually has almost all possible combinations of the three main founding breeds already, and also in an advantageous relation: in 2013, the genealogical contribution to the gene pool was 47% Sayaguesa, 29% Heck, 20% Chianina and 4% Lidia – an almost ideal relation of breeds. Back-crossing with the founding breeds and using half-pure individuals as breeding bulls instead of working only with advanced crosses will always slow down the breeding process. So why not closing the gene pool and working with the genes that are present in the population?
I and Margret talked about this issue and the main reason for continuing the back-crossing with the founding breeds is to increase genetic volume. In the 1990s, they started with only very few individuals of Chianina and Sayaguesa (two in the case of the former and three in the case of the latter), so the genetic basis for the whole herd, which has produced hundreds of individuals since then, was comparably narrow. So they continue to back-cross them with good animals of those two breeds in order to increase the genetic diversity of the herd, which is vital, especially when considering that the Lippeaue is the main source for Taurus breeding individuals in Germany and therefore has a big influence on the Taurus and Heck cattle gene pool as a whole. And they do have really good pure Sayaguesa, such as the red cow Julia or the one at Klostermersch-Süd, and also the Chianina cow Laura is really good and of Rainer Titzentaler’s large-sized strain. The Wörth Heck cow Nadia’s job is not only back-crossing but also to increase the horn volume in the herd, and I am really looking forward to see the results of mixing the Taurus and Wörth lineage.
Of course traditional breeding and continuing back-crossing slows down the progress a bit, but I was told that they do not feel the need to hurry up – not to forget, the Lippeaue is not an aurochs project per se, but conservational management of a reserve using cattle, and breeding them towards an aurochs-like phenotype is a side-project, so to say (and this is the case in all grazing projects, by the way).

Bull sizes

A pretty interesting question for me has always been the size of Taurus cattle. In 2015, we managed to measure two cows (Bionade and Liberta, somewhere between 153 and 155 cm at the withers). More interesting is the size of the bulls, of course. Lucio, a pretty early cross bull, was measured somewhere between 160 and 165 cm at the withers, and it was the only bull for which height data was known so far. Because it was such a large individual, we assumed most of the other bulls would be smaller. Then there was the notion that Olaf Nowacki’s Taurus bulls (both born in the Lippeaue) would have reached 170 cm at the shoulders – I was sceptical at first, because they would have surpassed Lucio, a bull that already was seemingly an exceptionally large bull.
However, I once again took my yardstick with me. When we took at the look at the Kleiberg herd, Matthias Scharf managed to measure the breeding bull Linnet. The result was somewhere between 155 and 160 cm. However, Linnet is known not to be the tallest due to his shorter legs compared to other bulls. So when we moved on to Hellinghauser Mersch, where 42 623 (“Laokoon’s brother”) is the breeding bull, we measured the height of the arresting gear’s top bars, for which 42 623 was large enough to scratch is shoulders when he was in it last time for routine examination. It turned out that it was 170-175 cm high, so 42 623 must be 170 cm tall at the withers at least! This is a good size for an aurochs bull. These data, from Linnet and 42 623, sets whole new standards for the size of Taurus bulls. It means that 170 cm for both of Nowacki’s bulls is absolutely plausible and that Lamarck, which is taller than Linnet, is probably about 160-165 cm tall. It also means that Taurus bulls are, with the exception of the few pure Chianina and large Holsteins that might be here, the largest cattle in Central Europe.
Confirmed: 42 623 is a giant
On the small end of the spectrum, there was Londo. In the field we took a look at its decaying skull, and I measured the distance between his horn tips and it was exactly 70 cm long. Then at home I used the photo of Londo in profile looking exactly towards the camera and tried to calculate his withers height. The result was 148cm – the size of a very large Heck bull, and considering that he is about the same height as many of the Taurus cows on the photos, it might be an accurate approximation. So Margret and I concluded that the size of Taurus bulls usually varies between 150 and 170 cm. For the cows, two individuals might be too few to give such a broad statement – I am pretty sure the upper size limit of Taurus cows is 160cm at the withers (Larissa is bigger than Liberta or Bionade), and I do not know the lower size limit.
Londo's decaying head. Horn span 70 cm
The herds

- Disselmersch

Bionade is a grown cow now and produced interesting offspring, such as the daughter 01 861 together with Linnet. In such an advanced cross like this, it is unnecessary to calculate the exact genealogical breed combination because it will not match the actual genotype, let’s just say she is more than the half Sayaguesa plus a bit of Heck and Chianina and she absolutely looks like it. She might be the best-looking cow in the Disselmersch herd, despite her horns facing not inwards. 55 400, a daughter of 42 623, although quite good regarding body and horn shape, is another one of those with the mysterious creamish colour variant with diluted nasal mucosa. We do not know which breed is responsible for this variant, perhaps more than one, and it might also be coupled with some abnormities in keratin development because their coat and horns are rather brittle. The oldest cow is Ludovica, 17 years, the only remaining first-generation cross from the 90s and Heck x Chianina. The young cows look promising. The young bull (I do not know its mother) looks quite good so far, maybe it will grow into a good possible breeding bull. Linnet himself has comparably short legs, as typical of all the offspring of the Sayaguesa bull Churro, which happened to have short legs as well. But nevertheless, Linnet is a valuable bull. Not only for his muscular build, but especially for his thick, inwards-curving horns. Truly inwards-curving horns are comparably rare even in primitive bulls (exception: Maronesa f.e.), and Linnet is the Lippeaue bull with the most inwards-curving horns. In an aurochs, they would curve even further inwards, comparable to those of this wild yak.
Father and son: Churro and Linnet (photo of Churro: Matthias Scharf)
Bionade (Sayaguesa x Chianina)
01 861
55 400
Old lady: Ludovica
- Hellinghauser Mersch

Hellinghauser Mersch is usually the largest of the herds. Dona-Urraca, the oldest of the cows (21 years) is grazing there. She is rather skinny now and probably will not calf anymore, but she produced many good individuals in the past. Her horns are remarkable for the inwards-curve that she passed on to a lot of her offspring. Another very good-horned cow is 79 813. She is a daughter of Lamarck and Lepisma, and therefore quarter Lidia. She is one of the more cautious individuals, but not nervous or aggressive. Lepisma herself clearly shows her half-Lidia descent in looks, but is comparably gentle. Two other rather good cows in the herds are Laola and 42 028 (now nicknamed “Dunja”). Both are 50% Sayaguesa 50% Heck x Chianina and therefore produce “true F2” individuals with the breeding bull 42 623 (“Laokoon’s brother”, still has no proper own name). About half of the young bulls in the herds are rather light in colour, they either have a saddle or are almost cow-coloured in one case; I suggested selecting them out, because the father 42 623 already has a saddle himself and continuing to use such a lightly coloured offspring might bear the danger of perpetuating this trait. Nevertheless, looking at 42 623 himself, I really like this giant. Not only for his size, but also for his muscular body with the well-developed hump. The horns are ok as well, the body a bit heavy on the other side. Apart from Dona-Urraca, there are three more Sayaguesa cows in the herd: Julia, a red one that looks rather aurochs-like, Baba, another brownish one (her male offspring, unfortunately, often had short faces and a heavy belly as far as I can tell), and Augustina. One of my favourite Taurus cows, 42 604, is having an injured foot since about half a year or so, and it is not clear if she is going to make it. That’s a bit depressing since she is a real beauty in my opinion, but she seems not to be that tall. There is one young son of her in the herd, a black one, perhaps he is going to develop well. Another young bull, a son of 72 813, has a surprisingly diluted colour – keeping in mind that both its parents are 12,5% and 25% Chianina, however, it might not surprise that much anymore.
42 623 and the Sayaguesa Augustina
Lirgit (mostly Heck, a bit of Chianina and less Sayaguesa)
Lepisma: half Lidia, half Heck x Chianina
42 028
Lirgit again
42 028 again
...and again
...and again
42 604 and her son
79 813
...and her son
...having horns shaped like the breeding goal
Sayaguesa cow Baba
One of 42 623's sons: too much red colour areas for its age

- Klostermersch-Nord

Klostermersch-Nord is the herd of my favourite Taurus bull, Lamarck. With the age of 10 years, he is one of the oldest bulls now, but still well in shape. Give him more inwards-curving horns, a slightly longer snout and a slightly more athletic body and he would match my conception of an aurochs bull very well. Linea is of the same combination as Larissa – half Chianina, half Lombritz (50% S., 25% H. & C.). 79 845 is a daughter of Linea and Churro, so mostly Sayaguesa and Chianina, yet her horns are quite Heck cattle-like. 55 386 is cow with good colour, horns and acceptable body shape. She is a daughter of Lamarck and 1/8 Lidia.
Klostermersch-Nord is also where Nadia, the pure Heck cow from the Wörth herd, grazes. She was pregnant when she arrived, and gave birth to a bull calf. They did not keep it, as a pure Heck bull would deplete the success that has been achieved regarding size, proportions and body shape. However, this year, she calved again and gave birth to a daughter of Lamarck. Therefore it is about 62,5% Heck, 25% Sayaguesa and 12,5% Chianina. I am looking forward to see this cow grow and see what a mix between the best Taurus bull and best-horned Heck cattle lineage is going to look like. If she is good enough to be kept, she could produce a good future breeding bull that has an impressive horn volume.
Lamarck: ten years old now and still in shape
79 845
Heck cow Nadia from Insel Wörth

- Klostermersch-Süd

This herd contains several good cows – 18-year-old Lerida, one of the very first Heck x Sayaguesa, Larissa, the largest cow to date, 79 815, a long-faced good-horned daughter of Laokoon and Liberta, plus Lena II, a well-horned daughter of Larissa and Churro. There is also a daughter of Laokoon and Laniana (01 870) that is somehow short-necked but otherwise rather good overall, plus a Sayaguesa cow with good horns. Londo’s short-legged offspring has been removed, and there are some grayish half-Chianina in the herd. The preliminary breeding bull of the herd is quite young yet, and has been nicknamed “Laniel” so far. It is a son of 42 623 and Augustina, therefore 75% Sayaguesa, 12% Heck and 12% Chianina. He seems to be short-snouted and has the slightly hanging back that many Sayaguesa have, but he also has the chance to grow big and also has really thick horn bases, probably inherited from its Heck great-grandfather Lancelot. Together with Larissa, he might produce some really good individuals: they would consist mostly of Sayaguesa and Chianina, and have the chance to be large-horned a the same time. I am looking forward to it. There is also a young Sayaguesa bull in the herd. As far as I know, they don’t have a plan for him yet.
Laniana: 1/8 Lidia
pure Sayaguesa
01 840
Lena II
... and again
Larissa and 79 815
79 815 again
... and again
Chianina cow Laura
The new breeding bull
The young pure Sayaguesa bull