By Tom Willey
T & D Willey Farms
Those docile black and white Holstein “milk machines” on today’s industrial dairies hardly evoke an image of their wild progenitor, the enormous auroch, Bos primigenius, that commandeered Eurasian forests some 8,000 years ago, on the cusp of its impending domestication.
European scientists, hot on the trail towards sequencing the complete auroch genome from ancient, well-preserved bone, intend to resurrect this extinct bovine from which all modern domestic cattle arose.
Motivation for such an undertaking derives from “Jurassic Park” fascinations as well as the potential utility of repopulating Northern Europe’s forests in which this native herbivore once browsed, contentedly munching on beech saplings, which today threaten to choke these boreal ecosystems.
The proposed back-breeding project, using domestic cattle strains, which yet carry key portions of the ancient auroch genome, is reminiscent of a similar early 20th century effort carried out by the brothers Heck, directors of the Munich and Berlin zoos.
The Hecks seemingly “reversed evolution” by crossing numerous cattle breeds to combine remnant characteristics from their wild auroch ancestors, the last of which perished in 1627 on a Polish game preserve.
Without any sophisticated genetic tools beyond the fresh rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inherited traits, the two German zoologists produced beasts that in all visual respects appeared identical to depictions of aurochs in famous French and Spanish cave paintings from the Paleolithic era.
This astonishing breeding experiment inadvertently launched much misguided interest in human eugenics, which the cruel Nazi regime pursued to a devastating end.
Several dairying friends of mine who transitioned their herds to pasture have quickly recognized that today’s cows, bred for maximum production on grain diets, do not perform particularly well when foraging grass.
These visionary herdsman are now calling upon out of favor breeds such as the Dutch Belted and others, well adapted to pasture, as genetic reservoirs of disease resistance and consistent production under new grass paradigms.
Western cultures, especially, have prospered by an eight millennia-long intimacy with bovine relatives, a profound respect for which has significantly eroded over our current industrial age.
Perhaps retrieving the great mother auroch from an abyss of extinction will engender in modern Homo sapiens some newfound appreciation for the fellowship and interdependence we share with all Earthly beings.