'Nazi' cattle invading zoo

Share this article

EVERYONE knows you should never show a red rag to a bull.

But for anyone looking to stay on the good side of the newest arrivals at Edinburgh Zoo, it might be better to follow the timeless advice of Basil Fawlty – don't mention the war.

For the fearsome-looking Heck cattle now settling into their enclosure at the zoo have some rather peculiar links with the Second World War.

The cattle were created through a selective breeding programme started by two prominent German zoologists in the 1920s, and later backed by the Nazi party, especially Herman Goering, the head of Hitler's Luftwaffe. It was all part of a bizarre and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring back the extinct aurochs, the ancient ancestors of all modern cattle.

Now staff at the zoo are hoping to be the first to breed the Heck species in Scotland.

Keepers at the zoo are currently helping the eight cattle – three males and five females – get acquainted with their new home after they arrived from a private collection in England.

They originally came from a special nature reserve in the Netherlands, and staff at the zoo admitted some of them were quite wild and could be fairly aggressive.

Sue Gaffing, head keeper of hoofstock, said: "The Heck cattle have settled in extremely well. They are a great addition to our animal collection as they have such an interesting history and they look fantastic in the fields at the top of the zoo. They are really low maintenance and have minimal contact with the keepers, which is fine by us as they are quite dangerous animals."

The aurochs are thought to have stood two metres tall at the shoulder, while Hecks are of similar size to today's domestic cattle.

Conservationist Derek Gow, who helped bring the cattle to Edinburgh Zoo, admitted they had a strange history. "They are closely linked with Nazi Germany, although the breeding programme which created them actually started some time before the Second World War," he said.

"We actually have very little information on the aurochs, but while the Heck cattle do resemble the few images and cave paintings that have been found they are certainly not true aurochs.

"They can be quite aggressive, as a lot of fighting bulls were used in the breeding programme, and many of these cattle have been raised in the wild, effectively, and so are unused to being handled by humans.

"I think the last auroch in the UK was found at Hadrian's Wall and was probably brought over by the Romans, so if Edinburgh Zoo manage to breed them you could say it will be the first animal of its kind born in Scotland since the time of the Romans."

The last of the aurochs, which succumbed to hunting and disease spread by domestic cattle, died in the Jaktorw Forest in Poland in 1627.


HECK cattle closely resemble the cave paintings of aurochs, the ancient ancestors of modern cattle.

And it was an attempt to bring back the extinct species that created the Heck cattle.

Zoologists Heinz and Lutz Heck theorised that since the aurochs had spawned all modern cattle, their genetic make-up must be found in other species.

Heinz Heck cross-bred different "primitive" species of cattle in the 1920s, but the attempts were unsuccessful, with the idea of bringing back an extinct species through "back breeding" now considered impossible.

Back to the top of the page