Rewilding Europe: The return of the Aurochs

The Aurochs is the ancestor of all domestic cattle in the world and was for hundreds of thousands of years a keystone-species in many European ecosystems. Unfortunately, in 1627 the species was finally hunted to extinction but its genes are still very much alive today in many modern cattle breeds.

The aim of The Tauros Programme is to back-breed the closest relatives to the original Aurochs, and to build up viable wild populations of this animal in several locations in Europe.

Hundreds of plant and animal species developed in co-evolution with the vast herds of Europe’s heaviest large grazers. For hundreds of thousands of years Europe’s ecosystems were shaped by the strong influence from wild and free living herds of Aurochs, together with other large herbivores, like European bison, wild horses, deer and ibex. During the last few thousand years a somewhat similar grazing impact was continued through the herds of domesticated livestock.


Aurochs

Today, large parts of Europe are now facing farmland abandonment at a scale never experienced before, as people move to cities in search of a higher standard of living. Whilst the farmland abandonment is a socio-economic tragedy, at the same time, it offers new opportunities to allow wild nature to take back at least some of its role in several European regions. For wildlife to once again be able to shape nature in all its richness and at the same time attract people who pay their way to enjoy it, creating the basis for a new kind of rural economy.

The Rewilding Europe project aims to re-introduce the large herbivores (aurochs) and predators (wolves, bears, lynx) that can re-create the natural balance to create a diverse eco system. Without the large herbivores, trees will dominate and grassland habitats will be lost. Without the predators the herbivores will dominate and young trees will be unable to get established.

In several universities work is being carried out to unravel the DNA from the extinct Aurochs. The first results are available so we can compare it with the genes analysed from 30 of the most primitive bovine breeds in Europe. The rest is really just about classic breeding work, but done in the other direction. The end result might not become an identical copy of the Aurochs, but will be very close. Therefore, for the time being, they call the animal the “Tauros”. The Tauros will resemble and function ecologically just like the Aurochs did, which after more than 250,000 years of evolution had turned into an animal perfectly designed for its European environment. We have now selected six of the primitive cattle breeds to start working with, each of them having many of the typical Aurochs characteristics.


Aurochs in a cave painting

Around 2025, the Tauros are expected to have the right characteristics of the Aurochs – the genetics, colour, size, behaviour, way of grazing and the full survival capacity in the wild. By then the animal is expected to have been officially recognized as a wildlife species and released back into the wild in a number of areas, starting off within the Rewilding Europe initiative. The first breeding results look very promising, so most likely already within just a couple of years there will be herds that will begin to look and function very much like the original Aurochs-herds once did.

Restoring europe's wildlife with aurochs and others: Henri Kerkdi
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