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Conservation of livestock genetic resources in Euskadi (Basque Country) - M. Gómez[8] & I. Amezaga[9]


This study presents the actual Basque livestock breed situation. The breeds described are: Betizu, Monchina, Pirenaica and Terreña (bovines); the Asno de las Encartaciones (donkey), Caballo de monte del País Vasco and the Pottoka horse (horses); Carranzana black face and blond face, Latxa black face and blond face and Sasi ardi (sheep); Azpi gorri (goat); Chato vitoriano and Euskal txerria (pigs); Erbi txakurra, Euskal artzain txakurra (shepherd dogs) with two varieties: Gorbeiakoa and Iletsua; Villano de las Encartaciones (cattle dog) and Villanuco de las Encartaciones (dog); Euskal antzara (goose) and the five varieties of the Basque poultry: Beltza, Gorria, Lepasoila, Marraduna and Zilarra (chicken).

The conservation study shows that farmers need these animals. A programme is needed to develop these breeds in natural parks to assure their survival. In this way the society gets to know the Basque livestock heritage. At the same time, it aims at presenting the in vivo conservation and the work carried out by the Association “Euskal abereak” the umbrella of more than 20 societies that work on the conservation and recovery of Basque native breeds.


En este estudio presentamos la situación actual de las razas autóctonas vascas, así como la puesta en marcha de estudios de investigación sobre las mismas. Las razas descritas son: Betizu, Monchina, Pirenaica y Terreña (bóvidos); Asno de las Encartaciones, Caballo de monte del País Vasco y Pottoka (équidos) y Carranzana cara negra y cara rubia, Latxa cara negra y cara rubia y Sasi ardi (óvidos); Azpi gorri (cáprido); Chato vitoriano y Euskal txerria (suidos); Erbi txakurra, Euskal artzain txakurra con dos variedades: Gorbeiakoa e Iletsua; Villano de las Encartaciones (perro boyero) y Villanuco de las Encartaciones (perros); Euskal antzara (ocas) y las cinco variedades de Euskal oiloa: Beltza, Gorria, Lepasoila, Marraduna y Zilarra (aves).

El estudio de conservación auspicia la necesidad de contar con ganaderos que crían animales vivos y la posibilidad de un programa de desarrollo de las razas en parques naturales que asegure su supervivencia y sirva para que la población conozca esta parte del patrimonio ganadero vasco. Por otra parte trata de combinar la conservación in vivo con el trabajo de la Asociación “Euskal abereak” que agrupa a las más de 20 asociaciones que trabajan en la conservación y recuperación de las razas autóctonas vascas.

Keywords: Basque Livestock Breeds, Conservation, Breeder Associations.


The study of the domestic breeds is based on identification, evaluation, efficient use and conservation of the animal genetic resources. Such activities are being supported by FAO, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 and the regulations concerning breed conservation of the European Community. FAO defines a breed as: "either a subspecific group of domestic livestock with definable and identifiable external characteristics that enable it to be separated by visual appraisal from other similarly defined groups within the same species or a group for which geographical and/or cultural separation from phenotypically similar groups has led to acceptance of its separate identity". Among the reasons to conserve promulgated by FAO are: economic, today it may not be of interest to protect a breed but it could be in the future; scientific, a breed or population must not be lost because it can be interesting to study, historical and cultural. Euskal Herria or the Basque Country is formed by the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) that includes three historical territories: Bizkaia, Araba and Gipuzkoa, and since 1979 has the status of autonomy allowing a degree of self-government; Nafarroa and the Basque-French side (Department of the Atlantic Pyrenees) (Figure 1). The BAC has a human population of 2 069 000 (1998 data), covers 7 300 km² and has a density of 283 inhabitants per km². The peculiar orography of the BAC and the conservasionist approach towards customs and traditions by the Basque shepherds and cattle raisers have permitted the conservation of many breeds that appeared to be represented in the Neolithic (12 000 years BC) (Table 1).

The aim of this study was to show the situation of the different native breeds in the Basque Country.

Table 1. Basque native livestock breeds.


Name of the breed

Area where raised


1. Betizu*

BI and GI

2. Monchina*

Las Encartaciones (BI)

3. Pirenaica


4. Terreña*

BI and AR


5. Azpi Gorri*



6. Carranzana black face*

Las Encartaciones (BI)

7. Carranzana blond face

Las Encartaciones (BI)

8. Latxa black face


9. Latxa blond face


10. Sasi Ardi*

BI and GI


11. Asno de las Encartaciones*

Las Encartaciones (BI)

12. Pottoka*


13. Caballo de monte del País Vasco



14. Chato vitoriano**


15. Euskal txerria

BI and GI

Sheep and cattle dogs

16. Erbi txakurra


17. Euskal Artzain Txakurra Gorbeiakoa*

BI and AR

18. Euskal Artzain Txakurra Iletsua*


19. Pachón de Vitoria o navarro


20. Villano de las Encartaciones*

Las Encartaciones (BI)

21. Villanuco de las Encartaciones*

Las Encartaciones (BI)


22. Euskal antzara*

Las Encartaciones (BI)

23. Euskal Oiloa Beltza*

BI and GI

24. Euskal Oiloa Gorria*

BI and GI

25. Euskal Oiloa Lepasoila*

BI and GI

26. Euskal Oiloa Marraduna*

BI and GI

27. Euskal Oiloa Zilarra*

BI and GI

BAC=Basque Autonomous Community; AR=Araba; BI=Bizkaia; and GI=Gipuzkoa;
*Endangered breed;
**Near to extinction breed.



Geographical area

Few individuals have survived the crossing with other meat producing cattle breeds. There are a few populations in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Nafarroa and the Basque-French side (Figure 1). The situation is very critical and near extinction.

General characteristics

The “betizu” word originates from the Basque language where it means, Behi= cow, izua= shy, due to the semi-wild nature of these animals that hide in forest areas. The height of the withers in males is around 130 cm and 120 cm in females. Average weight for males is between 400-500 kg and 350 kg for females. The front is more developed than the back. It is a tawny colour with absence of pigmentation in mucous and hoof. The natural reproductive cycle is associated with the seasons and calving takes place once every two years.

Figure 1. Situation of Basque Autonomous Community within the Basque Country, Spain and Europe.


Apart from their characteristic of great rusticity, this breed presents an historical and traditional value in the Basques mountains, as it has special characteristics for marginal areas and mountains.


Geographical area

This group of bovines originates from Southwest Bizkaia and Southeast Cantabria where most animals are located. In other areas like the Northwest of Araba and North of Burgos, some individuals are present in most cases crossed with other breeds.

General characteristics

This is a wild or semi-mild breed that is extensively exploited. It inhabits forested rough mountains with pasture. Animals are rustic and small which belong to the group of chestnut and concave bovines. It is worth pointing out that they have a maternal character. They are small in size (the height of the wither in males is around 130 cm and 120 cm in females) and predominantly chestnut red or marine red; with a black switch in the tail, black ring around the eye and, a lighter colour on the forehead, black-line or top-line and fringe. They have small horns, which are, white at the base and black at the tip and shaped like brackets. The weight is around 150 kg for females and 200 kg for males.


They are wild cattle that attack and charge down on, qualities that have been used traditionally in bullfighting in local or family fiestas, where females are used more often than males.


This is the bovine breed most extensively used in the BAC as a meat producer. The animals are medium-sized animals with straight profiles and long-bodied proportions. They are of blond cape that ranges from corn-coloured to cream. The exploitation system used is a mixed one, making use of mountain pastures.


Geographical area

Two types can be differentiated: the Gorbean Terreña and the Terreña of the Sierra Salvada or the Peña, Northwest of Araba. The first group is located in the Gorbea Natural Park and the peripheral towns between Bizkaia and Araba. The animals are small in size and rustic. The type from Sierra is chestnut coloured, bigger in size and located in Araba.

General characteristics

These animals are rustic, strong and harmonious (Figure 2). The cape colour is chestnut with different tones. They have black or grey colour mucous. They almost never grow more than 142 cm in height. They have fine white horns with black tips. Females have cream colour breasts with hairs.


The traditional use, mainly for the oxens, has been to help in agrarian work.

Figure 2. Terreña cow.


Carranzana (black face and blond face)

Sometimes the breed is incorrectly named Vasca (Basque). Its origin is in the Carranza valley in the Encartaciones region of Bizkaia. Ewes are great milk producers together with Latxa sheep. The milk is often used in the manufacturing of the Idiazabal cheese (denomination of origin). The sheep are bigger in size than the Latxa and have big and drooping ears; they have a convex or ultraconvex profile, with long-line proportions without ribbon (Figure 3). They do not have a tuft of wool in the anterior part of the neck. There are two varieties; black face and blond face. The black face is nearly extinct. There are only five flocks left with 250 sheep in total.

Latxa (black face and blond face)

The origin of the Latxa word is from the Basque language where it means rough, in view of the rough quality of its wool. The ewes are great milk producers and the milk is used to make the Idiazabal cheese (denomination of origin). The animals are medium- or small-sized, with horns, ribbon, and with a peculiar and long tuft of wool. The head profile is straight or subconvex. They have medium-sized and horizontal ears. There are two types: black face and blond face and are located in all sheep producing areas of the Basque Country.

Sasi ardi

The Sasi ardi name originated from the Basque language where it means, sasi = bramble or thicket and ardi = sheep due to the fact that the sheep are mostly located in this type of vegetation. They are feral animals with a slight gregarious attitude. They originate from between Oiartzun to Leizaran and from Hernani to Goizueta between Gipuzkoa and Nafarroa. They have a hairless neck, without wool and have long legs. They are not milked because all the milk is for the lambs. Lambing takes place at the end of January. They have a good maternal capacity. At the beginning of April the sheep are moved to the mountains where they are kept in an extensive state and remain there until the end of November when they are gathered for lambing. They have a triangular head which is stiff and have small ears; they have a straight profile, popping eyes, open chest without tufts of wool, fine legs, with or without horns and have a very slight gregarious sense.

Figure 3. Carranzana (black face) sheep.


Azpi gorri

The Azpi gorri goat belongs to the Pirinees’ breed and has been selected for centuries by goat breeders in some Basque mountains. The animals are of medium size and have a straight profile and aegagrus type horns which lean backwards; a black cape with chestnut patches in the abdomen, head and extremities; they are a mixed type of exploitation, mainly with sheep; and are used for meat and milk production.

Donkey, Horse and Pony

Asno de las Encartaciones

The Asno de las Encartaciones (donkey) originates from an area located in the Encartaciones zone of Bizkaia, although until recently they were extended throughout the whole historical territory. The mechanisation of most of the agricultural work has made this commonly used animal almost extinct. The animals are small in size, proportionate and balanced. They have a red chestnut cape, sometimes with splashed white on the scapulas and vertebrate (Figures 5 and 6). At present, they are close to extinction.

Caballo de monte del País Vasco

The Caballo de monte del País Vasco (horse) originated from Araba. It is small- or mediumsized, but strong and rustic and can be used for meat. In all the varieties the predominant coat colour is chestnut and sorrel, and in a lower proportion black, golden and roan. They are of medium weight and the outline is straight-subconcave.


Geographical area

The Pottoka is the equine native breed of the Basque Country. Its origin goes back to more than 30 000 years as shown in cave paintings. They live in wild flocks organised in a hierarchy where the leader is the stud boss.

General characteristics

It is a pony with an acceptable general shape that can be defined as elipometric, subconcave, and of a short-line animal. The head profile varies from straight to subconcave and the face is straight. The capes are black, liver chestnut, pied-bald, and skewbald.

Figure 4. Azpi gorri (goat).

Figure 5. Asno de las Encartaciones (donkey)

Figure 6. Asno de las Encartaciones (donkey)


Until a few years ago, once a year, these horses were gathered together by the farmers who used them for exploiting communal pastures. These animals can be described as strong, fast, rustic, strong, docile and good for hunting, riding, walking and jumping. These latter uses are the ones that help to conserve this breed.


Chato vitoriano

Geographical Area

Its pre-historical predecessor was represented by Sus vitatus, that belongs to the Celtic origin line. Originated from Araba, the animals spread to the rest of the Basque Country, La Rioja and Burgos. At present it is extinct.

General characteristics

Hypermetric animals with cephalic concave or ultra-concave profiles and sublongline (Figure 7). It has white rosy uniform cape colour. Average withers height is 90 cm. They animals have a short and straight head. At maturity they weigh more than 300 kg.


Very precocious, produce high lean content meat, great rusticity and fecundity.

Figure 7. Chato vitoriano

Euskal txerria

Their origin is in the Celtic stock, related to already disappeared breeds such as the Chato vitoriano and the Baztanesa. It is a rustic breed, well adapted to herds and of late development. In the past, this breed was present in different territories of the Basque Country. Nowadays, in the BAC it is only found in Bidegoian in Gipuzkoa and in Zalla in Bizkaia. The animals have a black spotted coat, with well-defined black spots on the head and hindquarters, including the croup, and the back with no spots. The head is big, long and the outline straight. They have big hanging ears, close to the base, horizontal and falling on the eyes. The back is slightly bent with a narrow, short and descending croup.

Sheep and Cattle Dogs

Erbi Txakurra

They are dogs for hunting and tracking. Their origin is in the BAC, where historically there has been a centenary tradition of hunting with these dogs. They seem to be a descendant of the Celtic scent hound; they have a good sense of smell, are strong and very rough. They are traditionally used for hare, wild boar and roe deer hunting. Synonymous: sabueso navarro, braco vasco, braco navarro, braco vizcaíno. Their coat is white on the paws, chest, prominent and forehead, the rest is orange. They are not very big dogs. They have medium-sized ears and the nose is extended. The body has a tendency to be extended, i.e. long bodied. They have thin tails which are straight and fall downwards, the tip is white and they have double dew claws in the hindlegs. The first monograph of this breed was made in Elorrio (Bizkaia) on 2 September 2001, with 29 dogs.

Euskal artzain txakurra (Gorbeiakoa and Iletsua)

These dogs are used by the Basque shepherds as flock carers mainly with sheep although also used with cattle, horses and goats and as farm guards. There are two types: the Gorbeiakoa, which is distributed in the towns inside the Gorbeia Natural Park (South of Bizkaia and North of Araba); they have a firered face colour and have an average height of 54 cm. The other variety, Iletsua is distributed uniformly throughout the Basque Country. They are blond and sand cape colours. The average height is 54 cm. Both types are of eumetric weights.

Villano de las Encartaciones

These are prey dogs which originated from the Encartaciones in Bizkaia and areas near Cantabria, Araba and Burgos. They have been used from old times by farmers to catch the wild Monchina cattle in the mountains. They have typical reddish-grey cape colour (Figure 8). Mean height is 59 cm. They are subhypermetric, mesocephalic and longlined animals.

Villanuco de las Encartaciones

These are buzzard dogs which originated in the Encartaciones in Bizkaia and are small in size, have sharp hearing and are very agile. They are very much appreciated as pets and for guarding.

Figure 8. Villano de las Encartaciones (prey dog).


Euskal antzara

These are grey coloured geese, with darker and lighter stripes wings and chest sides, the ventral part being white. There are many bibliographic references that date back to the 19th century in relation to these birds as there are several painters and photographers that have left graphic evidence of this breed. This goose has no dewlap nor crest. The plumage is abundant, dense and tight on the back and chest, but less dense on the coccyx and thighs (Figure 9). The eggs have a minimum weight of 160 g; and the shell is white. The weight of the male varies between 7 and 9 kg and that of the female between 6 and 8 kg. The situation is critical and most of the birds are maintained in the Encartaciones in Bizkaia.

Euskal oiloa (beltza, gorria, lepasoila, marraduna and zilarra)

Geographical area

Evenly distributed in Basque farms in Bizkaia, Araba and Gipuzkoa. In 1984 the Basque Government started up in the Fraisoro Agrarian School (Gipuzkoa), a programme which is called “Programme for the selection and improvement of the Euskal Oiloa” breed.

General characteristics

The recovery of this breed was started by Fernando Orozco in 1975 after he saw the extreme situation in which the native Basque farm poultry breeds lived. As in the Basque Country there has always been a preference for the dark-shell eggs produced by the native breeds. White shell egg Leghorn-hybrid was not a challenge to the native breeds until when the commercial firms began producing hybrids with dark-shell eggs. There are five types, all of them with the same basic morphological constitution: Beltza (black with greenish patches), Gorria (red), Lepasoila (naked-neck), Marraduna (with red strips) and Zilarra (silver colour). The common characteristics in all of them are typical of the Atlantic type of European chicken: medium weight, average production, dark egg-shell, red ear, small and simple comb and yellow legs (Figure 10). An already extinct breed is the “Llodiana" or "Blond from Araba".


Mean production of 200 dark eggs with an average weight of 61 g. Due to its medium weight it is used in meat production, reaching a liveweight of 2 kg at 13 weeks of age under farm conditions. The birds are also wellknown for their use in ornamental aviculture and their feathers in the production of artificial flies for fishing hooks.

Figure 9. Euskal antzara.

Association Euskal Abereak

Recently, an association named Euskal Abereak has been formed which includes more than 20 Basque farmer associations that breed Basque native breeds. This Association comprises approximately 1 000 farmers with more than 15 000 animals with the main aim to join efforts in order to continue recuperating the Basque breeds from extinction, as well as to divulge a beautiful legate of our ancestors. The web site:, contains information on the Association and the Basque breeds.

Figure 10. Euskal oiloa.

Programme for Conservation

Farmers defending their native breeds, breeder associations, the Department of Agriculture of the Basque Government and the County Councils of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba started research projects some years ago that have helped to increase the knowledge about these breeds through the study of their characteristics, and also to prevent their extinction. At present, there are various conservation programmes thanks to the understanding between the Basque Administration and the farmer associations of the different breeds. Thanks to these initiatives, there are a few conservation and genetic improvement centres for some of the breeds as is the case of Pottoka, Euskal artzain txakurra, Villano de las Encartaciones and Euskal oiloa. In the past years, similar projects have included the Asno de las Encartaciones, and the Betizu and Terreña cattle. Funding is also provided to research projects, genetic and reproductive improvement plans as well as promotion and breeding. There is also conservation of cryogenic elements in a sperm and embryo bank where the future of the breeds is assured. There are 215 semen doses from a Betizu bull, frozen since 1989 thanks to collaboration between a farmer and a local enterprise. For the Terreña there are 6 689 doses frozen from 11 different bulls and 60 embryos. This type of measure will increase for various breeds in the future through the agreements between the farmer associations and the Basque Administration. There are also some proposals to include conservation flocks and herds of the endangered breeds in the Basque Natural Park Net. As it is clear that the conservation of breeds is not the same as conserving the genes the cattle fairs specialised in a specific native breed are increasing. These allow the public in general to admire and understand more fully the importance of protecting this part of our cultural inheritance.


The conservation of the native genetic resources could increase the economic or productive value in the relatively near future. In any case, the historical or cultural aspects are still the key. The preservation of the genetic resources of native local breeds will give us the possibility to use them in education programmes that could be developed combining on the one hand, the conservation point of view as part of the cultural legacy of each town, and on the other hand, offering the urban people high quality products integrated into the landscape or as pets.


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[8] Servicio de Ganadería, Diputación Foral de Bizkaia, Avda. Lehendakari Agirre nº 9, 2º. 48014 Bilbao, Spain
[9] Landare Biologia eta Ekologia saila, Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Sarriena auzoa. z/g. 48640 Leioa, Spain

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