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Aurochs (cow)

Bos primigenius

Europe’s original wild cattle, the huge aurochs would have fundamentally influenced the shape of Britain’s landscapes

Tauros cow in the Maashorst, Netherlands
Certain breeds of cattle can act as a proxy for the now-extinct aurochs.  © Kevin Pluk / Shutterstock

How it shapes the landscape

Cattle are habitual grazers. They love fine grasses and flowering plants in spring and summer. Their grazing enables a wonderful array of wildflowers to coexist in swards by ensuring more boisterous species can’t dominate. They nibble at the shoots of shrubs and young trees, breaking up shrublands, and creating and maintaining diverse mosaics of open vegetation. 

Cattle are strong, solid creatures and the aurochs was bigger than all of the species alive today. It would disturb the ground with its hooves, rip the sward with fierce horns, and create bare ground much appreciated by basking insects and reptiles. In wilder days gone by, the death of an aurochs would be valuable to a panoply of animals (including humans) able to feast on their carcass. 

The carcass juices would run into the soil, creating a hyper-fertile patch of ground ready to be rapidly colonised by nutrient-loving plants. Cattle dung is a vital resource for numerous highly specialised insects and fungi. Aurochs dung would have done the same.

Where it likes to be

Aurochs would have been wanderers, roaming across huge landscapes, between open grasslands and shady woodlands, in search of the freshest vegetation and evading the attention of larger predators.

How much space they need

Hardy native cattle today will get on well in a few tens of hectares but they’ll start to act more naturally wild in herds in thousands, or tens of thousands, of hectares.

Background story

Prior to human arrival, Britain was likely covered in a mosaic of grassy plains, shrublands and scattered and more extensive woodlands. It was the ideal habitat for aurochs. They would have formed herds and wandered vast, wild landscapes, moving from open grassland plains to sunny glades in summer, and into shrublands and woodlands to browse woody vegetation in autumn and winter.

As the influence of humans increased, the space available for free-ranging wild cattle declined. Their place was taken by our own domesticated grazers. Wild aurochs survived in Europe until 1627, when the last known individuals died out in Poland’s Jaktorow Forest. Their DNA lives on in our hardier native breeds, such as the Highland and Longhorn. These breeds provide a worthy stand-in for aurochs in rewilding projects.

Aurochs longhorn cow
The longhorn cow is a useful surrogate for the extinct aurochs  © Simon Greig / Shutterstock

Can we have them in Britain?

The aurochs is dead and gone, but back-breeding of its closest living relatives in Europe has produced the Tauros, its closest descendant. Rewilding Europe has introduced the tauros to the Coa Valley in Portugal and the Danube Delta (Read more about tauros on the Rewilding Europe website).

In Britain, hardy native cattle are one of the more straightforward ecosystem engineers to accommodate. However, letting them be properly wild is difficult because of legislation governing livestock.

In summary

  • Extinct ecosystem engineer
  • Likes grasslands, shrublands and woodlands
  • Vital component of every mainland and larger island habitat in Britain
  • Wild cattle dung supports numerous highly specialised insects and fungi
  • Native cattle breeds (such as the Highland, Longhorn or Belted Galloway) can be used as a proxy for the aurochs