Giant Istrian Ox
The Istrian Ox is part of the extensive family of Podolican steers. The Bos taurus macroceros, which once populated the steppes of Eastern Europe and Asia, is the ancestor of the Istrian Ox. Podolican steer are named for Podolia, the granite-rich highlands of the Ukraine.
The Istrian Ox is recognizable as an ancient breed simply by its massive size and great physical presence—the animal can easily weigh up to a metric ton. With their giant harp-shaped horns and white-gray mantles, these oxen are a majestic sight as they graze in the Croatian forests. The Istrian Ox is reared for milk, meat, and farm labor. This breed has been working the soil at least since Roman times and was one of the most important work animals of the Venetian Republic. During Venice’s rule over the Adriatic, the city-state’s government requisitioned some 20,000 oxen to tow oak logs from the high forests to the port, where they were used to make thousands of war ships. The long train of oxen that pulled the logs from the forests down to Venice was called the carrettada, and the road on which they traveled linked the town of Montona with the distant Portole in the San Marco woods.
At the time, the Venetian government mandated that the tops of the oak trees destined for shipbuilding be tied to the ground to make them grow in a bow shape. These enormous curved trunks were difficult to transport—their arched shape made them impossible to float down the river—and sturdy animal traction was the only way to move them. The incredible strength of the area’s white oxen was essential to Venetian shipbuilding and made the breed an asset to any small farm until the advent of the tractor.
Today, fewer and fewer bulls are castrated—a necessary step to develop its full musculature—and the market for draft animals has all but disappeared. A market for ox meat has yet to emerge and breeders prefer to sell the young animals, earning some quick money instead of investing in the years needed to raise a mature animal.
Photo: Ivo Danchev