SCOTLAND’S iconic Highland Cattle may be partly descended from wild oxen known as aurochs that roamed these islands thousands of years ago and have long been extinct.

Scientists in Dublin have successfully extracted genetic material from an aurochs bone discovered in a cave in Derbyshire. The remarkably well-preserved bone belonged to a wild British aurochs that died out 6,750 years ago.

In a paper published yesterday in Genome Biology, scientists David MacHugh and his team from University College, Dublin (UCD), revealed that they had completed the first nuclear genome sequence of an aurochs.

The sequence shows that some modern domestic cow breeds, including the Scottish Highland and Irish Kerry, had wild ancestors that were British, as well as Asian.

The aurochs was widespread across the grasslands of Eurasia and North Africa 11,000 years ago but little was known about the relationship between domesticated cattle and wild aurochs in Europe, and how these creatures – bigger than today’s bulls and standing 1.8m at the shoulder – contributed to the evolution of modern cattle.

Unearthing the genetic blueprint of aurochs, the team of researchers compared the genome to the genomes of two major groups of cattle already known to have been descended from the aurochs, and DNA marker information from more than 1,200 modern cows. The team discovered clear evidence of breeding between wild British aurochs and early domesticated cattle such as Highland Cattle.

David MacHugh, senior author on the study from the School of Agriculture and Food Science at YCD, said: “Our results show the ancestors of modern British and Irish breeds share more genetic similarities with this ancient specimen than other European cattle. This suggests that early British farmers may have restocked their domesticated herds with wild aurochs.

“What now emerges from high-resolution studies of the nuclear genome is a more nuanced picture of crossbreeding and gene flow between domestic cattle and wild aurochs as early European farmers moved into new habitats such as Britain during the Neolithic era.”

McHugh said the study could have important benefits for scientists studying the genetics of modern cattle and could assist the Highland Cattle breed itself.

He said: “This first aurochs genome sequence will provide an important comparative reference to help animal geneticists and breeders build a clearer picture of the genetics underlying important behavioural, production and health traits in modern domestic cattle populations.

“This information will be particularly valuable for the genome-assisted breeding programmes that increasingly underpin dairy and beef cattle production in many countries.

“Notwithstanding the outputs relevant for commercial cattle breeding, the aurochs genome project has revealed that British and Irish ancient heritage cattle breeds can trace a significant portion of their genetic make-up back to the magnificent wild aurochs that roamed Britain prior to farmers.”

“These results will have significant implications for genetic conservation of unique breeds.”