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More information on identifying an aurochs and literary references

Some notes about the Aurochs
All but one of the species whose tracks have been preserved in the Holocene mud strata at Formby Point are still alive today
These are: Red deer, Roe deer, Wild boar, Dog / Wolf, Sheep / Goat, unshod Horse, Crane, Oystercatcher and Heron.  Their appearance and their footprints have not changed appreciably over the ten millennia since the last Ice Age.  However, the hoofprints of Red Deer (now 8-9cm long, but 12-14cm in length some 7000-5000 years ago) indicate a far larger species during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.  Crane footprints would also suggest a slightly larger species than today’s.  (The ‘Collins Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs’ by Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrøm provides an excellent guide to the shape and gait characteristics of these animals and birds.)
The one exception to the fauna found on prehistoric Formby Point is the Aurochs
It is thought that this species of wild cattle had been hunted into extinction in the British Isles by the end of the Bronze Age, about 3000 years ago.  It survived longer and well into the historic period in Continental Europe, but even then, its size, speed and ferocity made it a much prized animal to hunt.  The last Aurochs died – of old age – in the Jaktorów forests in Poland in 1627.
So, what do we know about this magnificent beast? 
We’ll begin with the name – whose singular and plural forms are sometimes a source of confusion!  Its prehistoric name is not known, but to the Germanic peoples of Europe it was the Ur and this was Latinised by the Romans to Urus  (the etymology of ur would suggest an association with ‘dampness’, ‘moisture’, ‘liquid’, - which indicate well its habitats).
In mediaeval German –ohso (ox) was appended, giving the form urohso, which subsequently became Auerochse, plural Auerochsen.  As a result of the growing interest in archaeology, that name entered the English language from Germany in 1869 as aurochs, and pronounced /ˈɔːrɒks /. 
Aurochs is therefore both the singular and the plural form (although, echoing its modern German origins, the plural aurochsen  has occasionally been observed; some dictionaries also give aurochses).  Linguistically, however, there is no such animal as an ‘auroch’!

So what did the animal look like?

Illustration adapted from a cave painting at Lascaux, France

Hoof showing distal sesamoid bone impression
Aurochs hoof and print
Left: Painting Lascaux, France. Right: Lifeboat Road, Formby

Aurochs.jpgSkeletons indicate that an adult, bull aurochs stood 180cm high to the shoulder blades and was 330cm from the muzzle to the rump.  Attempts to re-create the aurochs by selective retro-breeding are not at the moment entirely convincing.  However, prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, for example, do give a clearer indication of the actual size and appearance of the species some fifteen thousand years ago.

Moreover, the hoofprints depicted from a vertical perspective of some of these images draw attention to important tracking features such as the impressions made by the distal sesamoid bones as well as hoof registration.  It is humbling and exciting to realize that an unknown Palaeolithic artist reached out across fifteen millennia to teach me, too, how to identify and follow aurochs tracks on Formby Point.

There are early historical accounts of the aurochs
Julius Caesar writes in Book VI of his ‘Gallic Wars’:
These (the Ur) are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.
Hi (= uri) sunt magnitudine paulo infra elephantos, specie et colore et figura tauri. Magna vis eorum est et magna velocitas, neque homini neque ferae quam conspexerunt parcunt.
And there is a brief, but powerful sketch of an aurochs – the Ur – written in Anglo-Saxon about twelve hundred years ago:
The aurochs is bold   and lofty horned
a very savage beast   it fights with its horns
a renowned strider across marshy terrain   it is a noble creature.
Ur byþ anmod   ond oferhyrned,
felafrecne deor,   feohteþ mid hornum
mære morstapa;   þæt is modig wuht.
 If any readers should encounter me on the foreshore at Formby Point, I shall gladly recite it for you in Anglo-Saxon......!

Note from web editor: He really will recite Anglo Saxon poetry to you.  I've seen him do it to an unsuspecting woman at the British Museum who made the mistake of saying she'd never heard of an aurochs