The shaggy-haired, long-horned Highland cattle are closely associated with the beauty, mystery, and romance of the Scottish Highlands. Underneath this dramatic appearance lies a useful and productive cattle breed.
The Highland descends from the native cattle of Scotland and is named for the Highland region. The breed was shaped primarily by natural selection and as a result, it’s best known for its survival qualities hardiness, maternal abilities, reproductive efficiency, and longevity. Highland cattle thrive on rough forage and in cold, wet climates. Like the other Scottish beef breeds, the Galloway, Belted Galloway, and Angus, the Highland is celebrated for the excellence of its beef.
The early history of the Highland is not well recorded, though the breed was improved and standardized during the 1800s. Improvement was made through selection alone; the Highland never had any introductions from other breeds. Cattle were raised in the Highlands and on the islands nearby. Sometimes called kyloe cattle, they were once tasked with swimming across the straits (or kyloes) on their way to market on the mainland. The breed became well known in Scotland and England, and a herdbook was established in 1884.
Highland cattle were first imported to North America in the 1880s, and importations have continued throughout the 1900s. The breed has always had a small but loyal following, especially in the northern part of the United States and in Canada. It is only recently, however, that Highlands are achieving their greatest popularity. One of the breed’s assets is its foraging ability. Highlands consume a wide variety of pest plants as well as grass and can be used to improve pastures. The breed is considered a “light grazer” in Europe, used to manage and diversify marginal lands without the negative impact seen with heavier breeds.
Highlands are medium in size, with cows weighing 900 to 1,300 pounds and bulls 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. They have long, shaggy coats that most commonly light red, but many other solid colors are also seen, including black, brindle, cream, dun, red and white. The horns of the Highland cows sweep out and up, while those of the bulls are horizontal with upturned tips.
In 2019, Highland cattle became numerous enough to graduate from the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. In numbers, this means that there are more than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and more than 25,000 animals globally. These cattle, native to the Scottish highlands, are especially popular in the northern tier of the United States and in Scandinavian countries.
Their dramatic shaggy coats and long horns make them a true conversation starter for agritourism operations. This breed has become an international resource for beef production in marginal landscapes. Another important use is conservation grazing. Highland cattle have always had a great reputation for being rugged producers of high-quality beef and they have now found a secure niche as productive partners in effective range management throughout the globe. The breed has benefited greatly from effective promotion and registration by the breed associations.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.