This Animal 'Rochs!

Michael McDermott and his family may have been the only people to move out of Seattle in the early 1990s, when that city’s high-tech grunge cachet was at its peak. The McDermotts moved to an abandoned dairy farm in Kelliher, Minnesota. The place was soon hopping with strange cattle—tall, hairy bovines with big horns, which arrived in a range of colors from specialty breeders all over the world.

There is something about these animals that have a hold on McDermott’s imagination, something that transports him back to his ancestors among the Highland clans of Scotland. “Can you imagine the ancient Scots going to war riding their Highland cattle, with their bodies painted blue … fighting alongside their Highland cattle?” McDermott asked me, by way of an unsolicited e-mail, a few months ago. “I am a bull tamer, and through my understanding of the form and function, I have recreated the ancient aurochs. You are invited to view our site and begin an adventure with the use of Highland genetics and its connections to ancient Highland culture.”

While driving hundreds of miles to his two-hundred-acre spread in northwestern Minnesota, it occurred to me that McDermott might have been inviting me to his website, not his actual farm. But I was practically there, and determined to see for myself what he was talking about.
According to McDermott, the Highland cattle and Highland crosses he breeds are well suited to the forests and bogs of northwestern Minnesota, able to survive outside and even give birth during harsh winters with no shelter. These are the cattle he envisions as the center of his Highland forefathers’ world, the ones clansmen rode into battle against the Romans. More tangibly, he says his bulls’ ability to graze on a wide range of rough forage helps create a natural balance of forests and their fauna, and keeps trees and shrubs in place, minimizing soil erosion. As if that weren’t enough, they provide jumbo-sized rib-eye steaks that are relatively low in cholesterol, which he sells by mail order.

When McDermott wrote to me about recreating the ancient auroch, I didn’t know what an auroch was—a monument à la Stonehenge? A Celtic symbol? A Bronze Age bagpipe? Turns out it’s a now-extinct breed of wild cattle, Bos primigenius, which is thought to be the ancestor of domestic cattle. The prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France, featured aurochs prominently. Julius Caesar wrote about the animal he encountered in the Black Forest in the first century B.C., saying, “They are but a little less than elephants in size… Their strength is very great, and also their speed. They spare neither man nor beast that they see. They cannot endure the sight of men, nor be tamed.”

Aurochs were hunted throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages until only a small number remained in a royal forest in what is now Poland. The last auroch died in 1627.

Through modern genetic methods and ancient breeding stock, McDermott claims to have recreated the auroch by accident when he bred his Highland cattle with Belgian Blue cattle. To my untrained eye, the hairy, muscular hybrid he has created does bear a striking resemblance to pictures of the wild cattle species of yore. Yet even at eight feet long and five feet high, the bulls are considerably smaller than some of the huge auroch skeletons unearthed in Europe, which have stood nearly six feet at the shoulder. But, hey, a miniature poodle is still a poodle, right?

Well, sort of. As close as McDermott appears to have gotten to an auroch look-alike, scientists say there is virtually no chance that he has reverse-engineered the original auroch’s genetic makeup. Still, it’s kind of a kick to see McDermott pet and calm a big animal that looks like the one Caesar declared untamable. I decide I’d be willing to ride one into battle alongside McDermott should the Canadians ever attack his farm from the north.—Dan Gilchrist