A British farmer has been forced to kill several cattle descended from animals that were specially bred by Nazis to be wild and untameable because they proved too wild and untameable to handle safely on his farm.
Derek Gow, an ecological consultant who runs a 600-acre farm in Devon, in southwestern England, imported 13 Heck cattle from European wilderness sanctuaries and bred up a herd of 20 but has now been forced to reduce the numbers to six of the most manageable beasts.
And no, he’s not some kind of agricultural Nazi expressing his views through his cattle holdings. He imported the big-shouldered horned cattle not just in the name of biodiversity—he runs his farm on ecological lines, and the farm’s natural habitats have been used as a set for numerous British wildlife documentaries—but also to be striking subjects for the photography school he runs.
Only one problem: You can’t get near them without provoking an attack.
“They were just way too aggressive to try and maintain on a farm here,” says Gow of his “Nazi cows.” “You couldn’t walk through a field with them in it. They would try and kill you. We just couldn’t have animals like that. We have kept two bulls and four cows, and from these nice calm ones, we will breed up more of a herd, but we are not keeping things that are lunatics.”
The extraordinary story of the Heck cattle goes back to Europe’s darkest days. The cows were bred in the 1920s and ’30s by the German brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, two zoologists who were attempting to reverse engineer from modern cattle the extinct European Ox, the Auroch. The star of countless cave paintings, it was represented as the greatest prize of Aryan hunters such as Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer in Teutonic mythology.
The Heck brothers would, therefore, doubtless have been delighted at the inability of a British farmer to control their wild beasts.
“When they were creating these animals at the beginning of the 20th century, the Heck brothers and their supporters, the Nazi Party, wanted this, this whole concept of wildness,” Gow told The Daily Beast in a telephone conversation from his farm. “The idea was to have something wild and Teutonic that went back to the days of Siegfried and his great hunting exploits. And therefore the idea that you created something untameable was very appealing to them, so they picked things like Spanish fighting cattle and incorporated them in the mix, and the net end result of that is you get some individuals that are just really very difficult.”
Ultimately, Gow says, the brothers failed in their efforts to recreate the Auroch.
As the journalist Jon Ronson noted in his documentary The Quest for the Aryan Cow, “It’s like mating a lizard with a toad and hoping to get a dinosaur.”
The attempt to “breed back” the Auroch of Teutonic legend was of a piece with the Nazi obsession with racial purity and eugenics.
“The long and short of it was that it fitted in with the kind of Lebensborn-type program where you had members of humanity selected for physical characteristics, and you use those as the ‘breeding’ people to produce a race of people that you wanted. It’s the same sort of thinking,” says Gow.
“And the darkly sinister thing about the cattle was that, while you had these two brothers that were involved in this, at least one of whom was a well-connected member of the Nazi Party, after the Second World War they just blended back into life, they went on to become very eminent zoologists, they did kids’ TV programs, went on expeditions to Africa, wrote books, were on TV—and this aspect of their lives was just kind of swept completely under the carpet.”
“Eugenics was a flawed way of thinking,” says Gow. “And therefore, these things are incredibly color variable. So although you will look at one and it will look kind of like a cave painting, sometimes they chuck out calves that look like Highland or Jersey cattle. They just reflect the range of breeds that were used to create the Heck cattle in the first instance.
“Humans spent a long time domesticating cattle, and what they were trying to do, in essence, was de-domesticate them.”
And, as Gow adds wryly from his own personal experience, “To a huge extent they achieved that aim very well.”