Of aurochs and bison – turning to the past to build a new future

Bringing back dinosaurs is one of those ideas that only lives on the big screen. But what about aurochs wandering around Europe? And what about buffalo once again roaming the American west? Those ideas are not the stuff of novels or movie fantasies.

Photo by Juraj Valkovic on Pexels.com

The idea of ‘rewilding’, romantic as it may seem, is a serious and quite practical response to the growing abandonment of farmland in Europe and North America. While I had read long ago about people moving away from the Great Plains in the US, I didn’t realize the scale of this problem worldwide until I began recently learning about ‘rewilding’ farms in England.

By 2030, about 11% of the EU’s agricultural land is at high potential risk of being abandoned, and between 1997 and 2018, the US lost almost 98,000 square miles of farmland. And even if climate warming makes more northerly land suitable for cultivation, the extent of this loss has implications for food security, not to mention rural livelihoods and communities.

Dying villages go along with the decline in farming. I remember hearing people talk in Serbia two decades ago about how many villages had only a few elderly residents left as young people moved to cities, and this is a problem in many of the rural areas of eastern Europe. It is not just that the older people are gone – with them have gone the agricultural skills and traditions of village life that bring the cultural and artistic richness valued by cultural tourists. More attention is being paid to the dying villages these days, with strategies as varied as creating unique kinds of hotels and offering old houses for sale for one euro and, more controversially, offering homes for refugees from conflict. That is a story for another day.

But for now, back to the discussions about agricultural abandonment.

One idea is that abandoned farmland will go back to nature by itself, although there is apparently not so much data about this. A 2011 study suggested that the area of ‘recovering secondary vegetation’ – old fields, pastures, and recovering forests – at 11.2 million square miles of land, roughly triple the entire land area of the US. That was a wide ranging estimate, based on computer models and a long historical view, but it does seem to be happening – Spain, for example, has gained 96,000 ha of forest each year between 2000 and 2015, and is engaged in several rewilding initiatives.

But others believe that more human intervention is needed. Project Drawdown suggests that the 950 million to 1.1 billion acres of deserted farmland worldwide “offers an opportunity to improve food security, farmers’ livelihoods, ecosystem health, and carbon drawdown simultaneously”. That can be done, they say, through the return of native vegetation, establishment of tree plantations, or introducing regenerative farming methods.

And this is where aurochs and buffalo come into the picture. Rewilding the land involves restoring ‘keystone species’ which function like ecological engineers, restoring the land to its earlier fertility as they graze. The European Rewilding Network, which now has 64 members in 27 countries working on rewilding initiatives, includes a Wildlife Bank which can make such animals available.

“Large parts of Europe have been passively rewilding for decades as people have moved out of rural areas,” says José M. Rey Benayas of the Catedrático de Ecología at the Universidad de Alcalá. “Reintroducing species more widely can only be done with the approval of the different people likely to be affected. Due to the low densities of people in the remote fringes of Europe’s rural areas, they remain the best options for places to reintroduce wild herbivores and carnivores which would restore natural processes thanks to their key role in food webs.”

In the Netherlands, in an area the Taurus Foundation calls the “Serengeti on the Maas”, it has been raising wild cattle for several decades with the goal of returning these hardy auroch descendants to European lands. Since 2008, the Foundation has been part of a European rewilding effort focused on rewilding 10 large areas totalling 100,000 ha.

The idea of turning the American West back into a Buffalo Commons was controversial when it was first proposed in 1987 by Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, who noted that the Great Plains had never been well-suited for agriculture and was becoming depopulated, threatening the future of as many as 10 US states. Their idea was to restore the shortgrass prairie to an area of 10-20 million acres and reintroduce the buffalo who used to roam the area in their millions, thus returning sustainability to the Great Plains.

This idea drew a fair amount of protest at the time. In McCook, Nebraska, for example, opposition to the idea led local people to create the Buffalo Commons Storytelling and Music Festival, which now has been running for more than two decades, attracting visitors and celebrating local traditions.

These days, however, the idea is less controversial and buffalo are returning to North America through the efforts of tribes and conservationists.

In October 2020, 100 buffalo were introduced to the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota as part of a collaborative effort initiated by the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation and Rosebud Sioux Tribes land management corporation with support from the World Wildlife Federation and the US Department of the Interior. The goal is to build a 1,500-head herd on 28,000 acres of tribal land by 2025, and the Wolakota Buffalo Range is expected to be financially self-sustainable by creating jobs and restoring ecological balance to the area..

The Blackfeet visualize a return of the bison to areas where they once roamed and have worked with scientists and conservationists to explore introduction of bison into the Waterton Lakes National Park ecosystem.

In the United Kingdom, bison are to be reintroduced – after an absence of 6000 years – next spring. The small herd will be drawn from Poland or the Netherlands, where reintroductions have been successful. As well as reintroducing an endangered species, their presence will naturally regenerate a former pine wood plantation to recreate a healthy mix of woodland, scrub and glades that will boost insect, bird and plant life.

As Rewilding Europe puts it: “Working with nature can protect us from flooding and coastal erosion, minimise wildfire risk, secure drinking water supplies, enhance human health and wellbeing, and drive economic growth. It is one of the most practical and cost-effective ways of mitigating climate change and helps to boost climate resilience.”

Fascinating update:

The Once-Extinct Aurochs May Soon Roam Europe Again. Atlas Obscura, Jan. 26, 2022

“For more than a decade now, scientists have been seeking to bring back this keystone species—and they’re getting close. While the aurochs themselves may be gone, their genes live on in most modern European cattle breeds. Somewhere along the way, our Neolithic ancestors in Iran and what is now Turkey managed to domesticate aurochs, rather than simply hunt them for food. The Chillingham white cows of northern England, the Spanish fighting bulls of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Chianina of Tuscany all carry substantial portions of their DNA. Since 2008, the Tauros Programme in the Netherlands has been working to back-breed aurochs. The Auerrind Project, which launched in 2013, currently has five breeding herds in Germany. Both organizations share research and, occasionally, breeding stock.”

1 thought on “Of aurochs and bison – turning to the past to build a new future

  1. And I am reminded of the book (and family) that changed my own life’s trajectory — A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.

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