Wild cows

I’m a birder turned botanist turned ungulate enthusiast. Because I only recently discovered ungulates, I don’t know much about them. I can therefore make naive comments and pose some dumb questions.

I gather that we used to have aurochs in southern England. As humans first spread across landscapes, they extirpated wild cattle and replaced these with domestic stock. If you believe Vera, the landscapes the first humans encountered already contained a good portion of open habitat – that’s where the aurochs and other part-open-habitat specialists were hanging out – and our domestic grazers and browsers simple came to occupy the niches of these large wild herbivores. And we expanded the open grassy habitats a lot by clearing the forested parts of the landscape.

We’re now in a phase of agricultural consolidation and contraction. Today, as people withdraw livestock and arable farming from remoter regions, and in the absence of the wild herbivores we drove out, the part-open-habitats are closing in as woodland takes hold.

Now, as a rule, I’m not keen on the idea of trying to resurrect – de-extinct – lost species when there are species on the brink of extinction that could be saved and recovered with a bit more effort and resources. I’d rather we helped folks in Indonesia to get the Javan rhino numbers back up, and spread them out across a few more sites, than spend a lot more cash trying to bring back the aurochs. For now at least.

But I also think it would be great to have aurochs back. And I’m a realist. Realistically, there are bright science-types who say they can conduct selective breeding of extant domestic cattle and thereby get something that they assume will be pretty much like an aurochs in looks and ecological traits. And there are people with cash who’ll help fund their efforts.

For example, the Tauros Project in the Netherlands are actively attempting to breed aurochs-like cattle that they’re calling Tauros. Consequently, we’re likely to have available animals that are closer in their behaviour and functional ecology to aurochs than the hardy and rare breed cattle we actively select for conservation grazing projects.

Do we reject these proto-aurochs – Tauros – and continue to use hardy or rare cattle breeds instead?  For Tauros to perform in a way that’s behaviourally and functionally similar to extinct aurochs, they’d presumably need quite a lot of space. It’s no good doing what we do to rare breeds in conservation grazing schemes – hemming them in with fencing, supplying water troughs and feeding in winter. That sort of pampering extinguishes some of the behaviours and ecological benefits of these animals: cow pats are a critical resource for all sorts of bugs, for example, and many dung specialists are adapted to exploit this patchy, unpredictable resource distributed across large landscapes; same with carcasses; and presumably wild cattle performed important seed dispersal functions to which some plant species have adapted and which only really work if the cattle are wandering around big landscapes. Some people say that big herbivores would need a huge amount of space to allow for seasonal migrations. But I’m pretty sure that proto-aurochs could persist year-round in the relatively benign lowland English landscape without the need to perform large-scale movements.

Is there anywhere in southern England large enough, and with the right mix of wooded and open habitats, to support a viable population of Tauros without too much pampering and meddling? I have one or two sites in mind, and will come back to that…….

Is there anywhere down south large enough to also support their key predator – wolf presumably? I’d say, ‘no: not for a while, anyway – but give Brexit time’. For now, we’d need some degree of intervention to replicate the sort of predation pressure we might expect once fully comprehensive trophic rewilding has taken hold. Bright ungulate ecologists could construct simulation models to work out what sort of predation pressure might be roughly right. And we could do the predating – we could stand in for wolves.

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