The cowboy profession has changed dramatically. I consider myself as a modern one. I live in the city and I am now travelling by train, plane and car from the Netherlands to Croatia. On the train, the women next to me proudly show their new bags to each other. The brand is called ‘Cowboys bags’. They look nice, but don’t quite look like the saddle bags of Clint Eastwood or Old Shatterhand.
Neither does this train resemble on of their horses. But again, these are modern times. I’m on my way to pick up a dozen Istrian Boskarin cows, together with Davor Krmpotic, the project leader for Rewilding Europe in Croatia, who did all the difficult negotiations and preparations in order to have them transported to the wild Velebit mountain chain. These cows will be part of the so-called Tauros Programme there. The Tauros Programme is our attempt to de-domesticate or rewild cattle back to its original form, since it is such an important keystone species: the aurochs. The Boskarins will be released from their farm life at Mr. Aldo Stifanić in the village of Višnjan in Istria. In the near future they will be free to choose wherever they want to go. No fences. A freedom though, that also comes at a price. No fences, that’s for sure, but no hay in the winter time as well. And apart from that: Velebit has some pretty wild country already, where wolves and bears roam around. So I’m a bit exited. However there is some backup protection for the animals. Once released, the animals will be taken care of by Mr. Petar Knezevic. Petar runs a cute Bed & Breakfast at 1.000 m altitude in the southern part of Velebit. He will initially help our Tauros herd develop and to get used to its new environment He will do all that’s necessary in order to keep the herd within the veterinary regulations, and at the same time helping them to ‘rewild’.
Buying a few heads of cattle next door in the Netherlands, is regular business for the Taurus foundation, but doing this in remote places (seen of course from my Dutch perspective) in Europe can be quite different, Davor and I noticed already. The negotiations with Mr. Stifanić took months, bi-lingual contracts were checked by lawyers and I’m now hoping not to meet too many new surprises. One thing I’m quite certain of however: early Friday morning I will be drinking a couple of schnapps with Mr Stifanić, possibly even before we are going to load the animals on the truck. And after that: sitting beside the driver during a 450 km drive, with a steep ascent up into the mountains.
Friday, March 28th, starts with the expected 08.00 schnaps and breakfast at Mr. Aldo Stifanić‘s farm, together with his two sons and both truck drivers. Mr. Stifanić has been one of the driving forces behind the saving and the protection of the Boskarin cattle here on the peninsula of Istria. Fifty years ago there were more than 60.000 of them, but in 1994 their numbers were reduced to 104 cows and only 8 reproducing bulls. As in a lot of other places in Europe, there was no longer room for this less productive cattle breed. In the eighties the former Yugoslavian government promoted the use of more highly productive cattle breeds. It’s the same story wherever we go in Europe: the original local cattle breeds are often on the verge of extinction, to be replaced by Limousin, Piemontese, Holstein or other highly productive beef or milk breeds. But , luckily some stubborn local enthusiasts sometimes try to save these breeds. The Tauros Programme is dependent on these initiatives and tries to use those breeds for a number of reasons. One being the contribution we can make to the preservation of bovine genetic diversity. Finally when big herds of Tauros will be roaming around rewilded landscapes again, evolution will have its way.
We bought 5 cows, 5 heifers and two calves and found them neatly lined op in mr Stifanić’s stable. Two of the cows are price winners. They were regularly used in cattle exhibitions. To be recognized by the shiny brass balls on the tip of each horn. Which definitely might look good on a price winner, but as a defence mechanism, shiny round balls are far less effective than sharp-tipped horns. We’ll ask Petar to unscrew them later. We load them and roll away towards Velebit.
At around 18.30 we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain when finally the truck with its 6-ton load of live animals arrived. An hour and a half before darkness. The ascent started on the still-paved road by driving backwards to the first hairpin loop. No serious problems for the experienced drivers. Two km’s further up the pavement ends and 10 km more of 10% unpaved road lay ahead. Davor and I followed in his car and I kept my fingers crossed. Two more nerve-breaking hairpins further, with the truck going in reverse a couple of times with slipping tires we found ourselves at the altitude of 1.000 m above sea-level. That’s as far as the truck could and would go. Only some 500 more meters to cross to reach the safety of Petar’s stable and corral. We found ourselves in a ‘situation’. Just releasing the herd on the spot would be a recipe for disaster. A cold wind was picking up and darkness falling. Looking in the truck we found out that the young bull calf had fallen on the way uphill and was lying battered and bruised between the other animals. We first unloaded him. Fifteen minutes later he was back on his feet and we decided to walk him up the stable on a leash. That’s where the cowboy story continues. Walking with young bulls on a leash at night on a cold mountain is not really in the job-description for the Rewilding Europe Velebit manager Davor Krmpotic. But that’s what he did. And not without success. We later discovered that the movie of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, after the books of the German Karl May was filmed on location on Velebit. You can even walk or bike Winnetou-trails, packages sold by a local entrepeneur. I’m sure Old Shatterhand’s spirit is still around, because even without any previous experience or Winchester rifle at hand, Davor walked the young bull up to the stable, meanwhile whistling ‘I’m a poor lonesome cowboy far away from home’. Going back to the truck in the dark we encountered both the truck-drivers and Petar walking with some of the heifers and cows on a leash. Apparently this was the way to finish the job. An hour or so later with all the animals safe in the barn, we sat in a smoky room where Petar’s wife had cooked us a wonderful dinner on the barbecue. All well that ends well. Davor and I then drove down the mountain again. The truck drivers decided to spent the night on the mountain. Too dangerous to go back with the big vehicle in the dark.
Next morning Davor and I drove back up, on a beautiful sunny morning to see how the animals were doing. We were driving in a small convoy of cars of people who wanted to spend this beautiful day in the mountains to hike. Halfway up the one-lane steep dirt road we saw some cars coming down the slope in reverse. We had a premonition. The empty truck was coming down the mountain. So a small traffic jam of cars caused by the Tauros programme was going a km in reverse down the mountain looking for a spot to pass. On passing we asked the drivers what took them so long. They were late because at the steepest hairpin their wheels started slipping and they had to haul a ton of stones in their truck to be able to continue. I’m not sure they will be in for a following cattle-transport.
ut the story doesn’t end yet. The cows were comfortable eating and drinking and doing their cow-things and getting used to their new environment. But Petar looked sad. That morning he found out that two of the mares of his herd of Bosnian horses, already being used in the Rewilding scheme for grazing the mountain, had returned without their young foals. Taken by wolves for sure, because both mares had bite wounds. So we’re very sure the balls on top of our price winning Boskarins will have to be unscrewed. Freedom for future Tauros animals will certainly come at a price. And we’re pretty sure some protection genes coding for long and forward-pointing horns can be used. I’m already thinking about the next transport. A couple of Iberian bulls could do the job. An adventure has started.