Genealogy

The Heck cattle that roam Oostvaardersplassen are the products of a fraught history. The last wild cow (bos primigenius), or ‘aurochs’, died in a Polish forest in 1627, the first historically recorded extinction, predating the dodo. In the 1920s however two German brothers, Lutz and Heinz Heck, had the idea that even though in the wild the animal has gone extinct, it should in principle be possible to breed an animal that closely resembles the extinct wild type by strategically crossing domestic cow breeds carrying particular primordial characteristics. As the directors of Berlin and Munich zoos, they started a breeding program combining a large variety of English, Spanish, French and Hungarian breeds, using some for the coloration, others for the right horn shape, and Spanish fighting breeds to increase aggressiveness.

Halfway through the 1930s, the Heck brothers claimed success in having recreated the extinct aurochs, an animal closely resembling those depicted in cave paintings, the template the brothers used for their breeding efforts. By then especially Lutz Heck had managed to align his zoological and conservationist endeavours with the Nazi regime that had come to power. Going on hunting parties with Hermann Goering, he managed to convince the head of the Luftwaffe and Reichsjaegermeister of his vision of repopulating nature reserves with the backbred aurochsen. A small group of these animals were let loose in Rominten Heide, Goering’s personal hunting ground. And after the uncontrollably wild animals had wreaked havoc upon the local residents and disrupted the deer feeding in winter, they were transferred to the primordial Bialowieza forest in newly conquered eastern Europe.

The rewilded Heck cattle in the forest is believed not to have survived the war, being shot either by Goering to prevent them from falling into enemy hands, or by the advancing Soviet soldiers looking for a good meal. A few animals however survived the bombing of the Munich zoo, and are to this day on exhibit there. In the early 1980s a few of these what have come to be called ‘Heck cattle’ were brought over to the OVP as hardy grazing tools that could survive winter on their own. Thirty years later hundreds of them roam the OVP, and can be found in numerous sites across Europe where they are used in a variety of ecological restoration projects. While emanating from a nationalist, Volkisch and eugenicist biopolitics and a horrific geopolitics of expanding nonhuman lebensraum, these animals now function in what could be considered a cosmopolitical, non-essentialist, open ended experimental mode of conservation.

Heck cattle at OVP in winter (photo: martijn de jonge)

When however Derek Gow, a British conservationist, brought a few over to his Devon farm in 2009 the UK press from the Daily Mail to the Guardian reported on this bovine invasion of ‘nazi cows’, leading to a variety of headline puns on Hitler and his bulls.

‘Nazi cows’ invading the UK, according to The Sun

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