HORTOBAGY NATIONAL PARK, Hungary — The medieval cattle drives were the stuff of legend. Every year, tough Hungarian cowboys drove tens of thousands of half-wild longhorns across the Danube River to the beef markets of Western Europe, fighting off rustlers along the way.
The drives were a staple for nearly three centuries, before they tapered off. But the Hungarian Gray longhorn remained at the heart of this country's beef industry and traditions until the 1950s, when communist agricultural officials decreed the strong, beautiful but bony animals an uneconomical and non-modern breed that should be replaced. Barely 100 Hungarian Grays survived to the early 1960s, most kept by isolated farmers.
Today, boosted by fears of mad cow disease in other cattle, the free-ranging longhorns are once again in high demand. There are about 4,000 purebreds, their number growing at more than 10% a year.
A very limited supply of the tasty beef goes to specialty products such as organic baby food and salami.
The biggest herd is here at Hortobagy National Park, in the heart of the puszta, the great Hungarian plain that once was home to the cowboys known as haiduks -- a rugged and romantic breed of men almost as wild as their cattle.
"The name doesn't just mean animal herder. It implies that they were fighting," said Endre Kaltenecker, chief breeder at the park. "They had to protect their animals against rustlers when driving them to Italy or Germany. At the same time, since they were good fighters, they could rob houses along the road. They also fought for Hungary's independence over the centuries."
It is often said the Grays arrived in Hungary along with the nomadic Magyar tribes that conquered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. Some argue that they are descended from an indigenous breed of aurochs, an extinct kind of wild European longhorn that resembles cattle seen in ancient Egyptian paintings. Still others say the Gray cattle came in with waves of settlers several centuries after the Magyar conquest.
Today's longhorns probably trace their ancestry to all of these sources, said Mihaly Boda, the national park's deputy director, who heads its efforts to preserve the Gray cattle and other threatened Hungarian domestic animals, including special varieties of sheep, pig and water buffalo.
The longhorns are less meaty than most cattle, poor milk-givers and slow to mature. But their wild beauty, enhanced by their distinctive wide-curved horns, inspires devotion from those who work with them.
"They are marvelous," Boda said. "You will fall in love with the females. They have beautiful faces. They are very feminine .... If the animals were ugly, I wouldn't be interested in them."
Tough, disease-resistant animals, the Grays can easily withstand the puszta's harsh winters and blazing summers. Of the country's two major herds, one is at the park in eastern Hungary; the other is owned by Dezso Szomor, who runs an ecologically oriented farm near the central Hungarian town of Apaj, about 50 miles south of Budapest.
Both herds graze on open expanses of land, and the owners say that neither has ever received feed fortified with animal products -- the main potential source of infection with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In recent years, the perception that Gray beef is among the safest in Europe has added to the breed's cachet.
"It's become fashionable because it is known that it's free of mad cow disease," said Szomor, who started raising Grays in 1978 as a hobby and later made the cattle a key feature of his farm.
"They don't give much meat, but I had my own calculations," Szomor said. "They don't need much attention, so it's easy to raise them. It was well known that the demand for organic food would increase, and among all the cattle, this one is best for that purpose. This is a half-wild animal. Its way of life and its meat resembles that of wild animals more than domestic animals."
The German baby-food giant Hipp uses Hungarian Grays to make strained beef marketed as BSE-free, and the acclaimed Hungarian sausage-maker Pick Szeged produces its prize-winning "Hortobagy Biosalami" with the longhorn's meat.
But the supply remains extremely limited: Last year, the state-owned company that manages animals at the national park sold just 500 young males for slaughter, and Szomor sold only 20. At both the park and Szomor's farm, all females are saved for breeding.
Breeding the Grays is carefully managed but still natural, Boda said. Control of bulls for pure-blood breeding is restricted to the park and Szomor's operation, he said.
"To avoid the risk of relatives breeding, we have six bloodlines, and we have to keep track of these bloodlines to prevent inbreeding," he said.
But the process isn't trouble-free.