A report (in French) in Sud-Ouest on October 24 notes that the Iparraldeko Betizuak association, an organization dedicated to protecting the remaining wild Basque cattle or betizuak in Iparralde, has been officially dissolved by its head, Iban Seiliez, in an attempt to “make the state and [different] bodies face up to their responsibilities.”
A betizu on Mount Xoldokogaina, Biriatu, Lapurdi. Photo by Seiliez, via Wikimedia Commons
The betizu–from the Basque behi izua or “elusive cow”–is a breed that still inhabits parts of the Basque Country, mainly in Iparralde and Navarre, numbering perhaps 600 in total truly wild cattle (there are domesticated betizuak throughout the Basque Country). In Iparralde, where there are around 100, they are to be found mainly on the slopes surrounding Mount Larrun (or Larhun; La Rhûne in French), the Ibardin Pass and Mount Arranomendi (Mondarrain in French), two areas of southern and southastern Lapurdi. According to Seiliez, “it’s one of the oldest breeds in Europe. It was almost made extinct in the 1920s because wild cattle were slaughtered during construction of the Larrun train.” Its characteristics are described here.
For Seiliez, “I think the objective of the association’s goal, which was to promote coexistence between the betizu and other mountain users, has not been achieved. Instead, we have disempowered the authorities.” He thus found it necessary to dissolve the association as a means of forcing more involvement from the authorities. “The betizu is unique in Europe,” he concludes, which “needs a sustainable management plan and a proper status . . . the authorities must assume this responsibility.” The provincial government of Navarre, for example, established a conservation plan for the breed, ceding land from an abandoned farm in the Urraulgoiti Valley for 45 animals to live in at least “semi-freedom.”
Betizu cattle, known alternately as behigorri (red cow), zezengorri (red bull), and txahalgorri (red calf), were important in Basque mythology as spirits that took animal form in order guard important caves. There are theories, moreover, that link this breed to those cattle represented in the parietal art or cave paintings of Europe’s most famous sites (though many of these paintings actually depict a now extinct type of bison, in some sites there are representations of bulls portrayed in a noticeably reddish color reminiscent of the betizuak). Regarding this mythological status of the betizuak, as noted in the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography:
They did not allow anyone to enter their dwelling place. In certain cases they kidnap young people who have been the target of some curse and hold them captive in their underground dens . . . It is useful to recall that the same figures that are situated by Basque mythology in caverns also appear painted or engraved by men of the Magdalenian period and earlier on the walls of some of the caves of our country.
In short, these are animals that have been extremely important in Basque culture for thousands of years. One can only hope that a solution is found to help them survive in what is their land as well.