Rewilding in Spain brings back ancient bovine

The World
cows in the wild

The auroch — giant, wild cows — date back nearly 10,000 years and once roamed freely across Europe. Until they were hunted to extinction by humans.

The last ones died in Poland in 1627, according to Ricardo Almazán, a safari guide in the mountains of Albarracín, Spain, where a herd of modern-day aurochs can be found. 

Safari guide Ricardo Almazán explains the concept of rewilding to a group of tourists.
Safari guide Ricardo Almazán explains the concept of rewilding to a group of tourists. In this case, it’s reintroducing giant extinct cows dating back nearly 10,000 years. The aurochs have been rebred from domestic cows that happened to share most of their ancestors’ genes.Gerry Hadden/The World

Today, the wild bovine — called tauros in Spanish — are here once again thanks to the nongovernmental organization Rewilding Spain.

They are working to “rewild” the auroch — or bring back the animal hunted out of the area to restore the wilds as they were before — as opposed to only conserving what’s currently there. 

Aurochs played a key role in the ecosystem — namely, grazing the largest brush and small trees to keep forests from growing too dense and prone to burning. Three species of vultures and feral horses are also being rewilded here. 

Reintroducing the auroch to the wild involves crossbreeding cows with the ancient genes of the aurochs, according to Lidia Valverde from Rewilding Spain.

So, taking the “genetic features from different breeds of cows that we know that are descendants of that wild ancient cow” to create a new breed, she explained.

But they’re not introducing an entirely new species — scientists have managed to recover more than 90% of the aurochs’ DNA, she said.

Rewilding Europe, together with the Dutch Taurus Foundation, began the program to bring back the auroch in 2013.

Now, the breeding of aurochs is happening in a selective way in Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania and the Netherlands. And, more than 600 of the animals have been bred since the end of 2017, according to Rewilding Spain.

Almazán said these new aurochs look and behave just like their forebears. They are reminiscent of fighting bulls, but up to three times bigger. An auroch may weigh over 2,000 pounds, with horns hovering 7 feet above the ground. They are Europe’s largest herbivore.

The aurochs, whose horns can reach 7 feet in the air and which can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, are now Europe’s largest herbivore. They fell small trees when they walk through forests, helping let in sunshine to overly dense woods.
The aurochs, whose horns can reach 7 feet in the air and which can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, are now Europe’s largest herbivore. They fell small trees when they walk through forests, helping let in sunshine to overly dense woods.Gerry Hadden/The World

Almazán said their presence in the forest is evident in the fact that a lot of trees have been knocked down — the aurochs walk along and smash them flat and then eat the wood and everything.

The cows’ behavior has a larger, ecological benefit, he said. The new clearing has allowed the sun to reach the forest floor for the first time in years, giving other plants the chance to grow and attracting insects, birds and other grazers, like deer.

Local farmer, Paco Rollola, who works with Almazán to help keep the aurochs from straying too far, said that lightning struck a tree nearby recently, but it didn’t start a fire because there was no undergrowth around the tree.

The aurochs had eaten it all, he said. Without them, he said, everything would have burned down.

Valverde of Rewilding Spain said that the beasts are not only making this forest healthier, but they’re also helping the local economy. This safari is proof.  It’s slowly attracting tourists to an area seldom visited.

Almazán’s not getting rich off his rewilding safaris, but he’s betting that driving tourists into the mountains to see feral horses, the aurochs and reintroduced species of vultures will one day pay off.
Almazán’s not getting rich off his rewilding safaris, but he’s betting that driving tourists into the mountains to see feral horses, the aurochs and reintroduced species of vultures will one day pay off.Gerry Hadden/The World

“We try to make a whole thing of rewilding,” she said, to create “something useful for local communities in a landscape that is featured with a strong depopulation.”

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