April 22, 2009 / 6:49 PM / 10 years ago

Ancient cattle species re-introduced to Britain

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A conservationist has re-introduced to Britain a modern relative of the ancient ancestor to domesticated cattle.

The shaggy, russet-colored “Heck” cattle imported into Britain from The Netherlands by Derek Gow are the product of a Nazi-sponsored breeding program intended to bring back the “aurochs,” an ancient beast mentioned by Julius Caesar, British newspapers reported on Wednesday.

The ancient species were immortalized tens of thousands of years ago in ochre and charcoal cave paintings in the Great Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux in southwest France.

The modern-day British herd brought to Devon, England is the product of Nazi breeding, an attempt to bring back the extinct aurochs, the last of which died of old age a Polish forest nearly four centuries ago.

“They look like the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. It makes you think of the light of a tallow lamp and these huge bulls on these cave paintings leaping out at you from darkened walls,” Gow told The Times newspaper.

The conservationist is also part of attempts to reintroduce the beaver to parts of Britain.

The herd has Herman Goering, the head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, to thank for its existence. Goering hoped to recreate a primeval Aryan wilderness in the conquered territories of Eastern Europe. Two zoologist brothers, Lutz and Heinz Heck, took on the task of scouring Europe for the most primitive breeds of cattle they could find in the belief that by “back breeding” they could resurrect the extinct species.

Heinz Heck, based at Munich Zoo, cross-bred shaggy Highland cattle with animals from Corsica and Hungary, while his brother in Berlin was crossing Spanish and French fighting bulls. The success of the Hecks’ breeding program is as disputed as the techniques they used.

They may not be as large as their ancient forebears, but Gow can vouch for the fact that they resemble the aurochs in other ways. His herd was imported from a Dutch nature reserve where they lived wild without any human contact.

“They are getting used to me now but they are very nervous with people they don’t know,” he told the Times.

The aurochs are believed to have become extinct in Britain during the Iron Age but they lingered on in parts of Europe well into the Middle Ages.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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