'Rewilding' activists aim to bring back some long-extinct beasts to Europe

The World
If Derek Gow and other advocates of "rewilding" get their way, creatures like his Heck cattle will once again roam wild through parts of Europe.

If Derek Gow and other advocates of "rewilding" get their way, creatures like his Heck cattle will once again roam wild through parts of Europe.

Christopher Werth

England is full of animals. You’ve got sheep, and barnfuls of cows. But in the county of Devon in western England, Derek Gow has a herd of cattle like none you’ve seen before.

It's a herd of strong, wild-looking creatures with short shaggy hair, long, broad horns, a tan line down the back and a white muzzle.

“The only herd of Heck cattle in Britain,” Gow proclaims.

And the thing about Heck cattle is that it is a breed meant to go back in time. They were the creation of Heinz and Lutz Heck, German brothers who became fascinated in the 1930’s with the wild cattle known as aurochs that once roamed Europe, but went extinct about 400 years ago.

Gow says they were enormous. “When you look at skeletons of aurochs, these are animals that are standing, you know, five, six foot at the withers [the highest part of the back,]” he says.

You can also see evidence of aurochs in prehistoric cave paintings in Europe. Gow says the Heck brothers had an idea — that the genes of the lost auroch lay hidden in breeds of contemporary domestic cattle, which are descendants of the ancient animals.

So before the Second World War, he says, the brothers traveled the world looking for primitive cattle types. “And they tried to create an animal that resembles the cave paintings.”

It was hardly scientific, and their ideas got caught up in the Nazi fervor of 1930s Germany. But today, Gow uses the smaller Heck cattle on his farm to simulate the vanished auroch and the niche it once filled in the landscape — a big, grazing animal that helped shape European forests and grassland.

Heck cattle, Gow says, “are probably as near as you’re going to get, as far as a visual image goes, of the auroxen that were once here.”

By “here” Gow doesn’t just mean behind fences. He’d love to see beasts like this out roaming the wider English landscape. And he’s not alone. He’s part of a growing movement among conservationists called “rewilding” — an effort to bring back long vanished animals, from auroch look-alikes to the predators that might have preyed on them, and establish large tracts of wild land where they can live.

It’s a pretty simple concept, says Frans Schepers, of the Dutch organization Rewilding Europe. The idea is to repair the damage done by humans to many of the continent’s ecosystems.

“It’s about letting nature take its own course as much as possible,” Schepers says, “bringing back species that belong there… Let them develop into natural numbers and see how we can rebuild these ecosystems back again where we have herbivores, carnivores, and scavengers in modern Europe.”

His group aims to “rewild” roughly 2.5 million acres across the continent, from Spain and Portugal to the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe.

In fact, several species are already coming back on their own. For example, European wolves were nearly hunted to extinction, but Schepers says a few survived and the wolf is now returning “big time” to parts of France and Germany.

And not just the wolf. Schepers says raptors, vultures, brown bears, wolverine and bison are on the rebound — “all species that are coming back because of strong conservation initiatives.”

Some rewilding proponents even suggest importing elephants and rhinos to mimic the mammoths and woolly rhinoceros that once roamed Europe. But others are far more practical about rewilding.

“We need to keep in mind that now we’re here, as well,” says Monika Bohm of The Zoological Society of London. Bohm says there’s only so much space for the wildlife that once inhabited the region.

“Quite often this is being a little bit overlooked in some of the rewilding debates,” she says. “We need to be realistic about what we can and can’t bring back.”

Derek Gow admits there are limitations.

He says he’s culled many of the members of his herd of Heck cattle because the breed tends to be very aggressive. “If you went anywhere near them, they would attack you,” Gow says. “So I’m afraid those ones are sausages. And what we’ve got left here is the residue, which is manageable.”

But Rewilding Europe is working on a breed of cattle that’s a closer match to the ancient auroch. And it hopes to establish free-roaming herds of the animal in Europe within the next two decades.

Catch yesterday's "Rewilding" story: After 500 or so years, beavers have mysteriously returned to England