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Highland cattle

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a shaggy orange-red cow with wide-spreading horns
Cow on Dartmoor, in south-west England
Conservation status
Other names
  • Kyloe
  • Long-haired Highland Cattle
  • Long-haired Scottish Cattle
  • North Highland Cattle
  • Scottish Cattle
  • Scottish Highland Cattle
  • West Highland Cattle
Country of originScotland
StandardThe Highland Cattle Society
  • Male:
    average: 650 kg[2]
  • Female:
    average: 450 kg[2]
  • Male:
    average: 125 cm[2]
  • Female:
    average: 105 cm[2]
  • red-brown
  • yellow
  • pale/silver
  • dun/brindle
  • black
Horn statushorned in both sexes
  • Cattle
  • Bos (primigenius) taurus

The Highland (Scottish Gaelic: Bò Ghàidhealach; Scots: Heilan coo) is a Scottish breed of rustic cattle. It originated in the Scottish Highlands and the Western Islands of Scotland and has long horns and a long shaggy coat. It is a hardy breed, able to withstand the intemperate conditions in the region. The first herd-book dates from 1885; two types – a smaller island type, usually black, and a larger mainland type, usually dun – were registered as a single breed. It is reared primarily for beef, and has been exported to several other countries.[4]


Bull and bull calf, illustration from 1890–1900
Black cows
Cow and calf in south-eastern Saskatchewan

The Highland is a traditional breed of western Scotland. There were two distinct types. The Kyloe, reared mainly in the Hebrides or Western Islands, was small and was frequently black.[5]: 243  The cattle were so called because of the practice of swimming them across the narrow straits or kyles separating the islands from the mainland. The cattle of the mainland were somewhat larger, and very variable in colour; they were often brown or red.[6]: 200 [7]: 66 

These cattle were important to the Scottish economy of the eighteenth century. At markets such as those of Falkirk or Crieff, many were bought by drovers from England, who moved them south over the Pennines to be fattened for slaughter. In 1723 over 30000 Scottish cattle were sold into England.[5]: 243 

A breed society was established in 1884, and in 1885 published the first volume of the herd-book. In this the two types were recorded without distinction as 'Highland'.[6]: 200 

In 2002 the number of registered breeding cows in the United Kingdom was about 2500; by 2012 this had risen to some 6000.[6]: 200  In 2021 it was 3161; the conservation status of the breed in the United Kingdom is listed in DAD-IS as endangered/at risk.[2] The number of unregistered cattle is not known.[6]: 200 

Although a group of cattle is generally called a herd, a group of Highland cattle is known as a "fold". This is because in winter, the cattle were kept in open shelters made of stone called folds to protect them from the weather at night.[8]

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth II ordered Highland cattle to be kept at Balmoral Castle where they are still kept today.[9][10]

Above Širvintos, in Lithuania
Bull, cow and calf on Seceda [it] in the Val Gardena, in northern Italy

From the late nineteenth century, stock was exported to various countries of the world, among them Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Falkland Islands, the former Soviet Union and the United States.[6]: 200  Later in the twentieth century there were exports to various European countries.[6]: 200  In 2022 the breed was reported to DAD-IS by twenty-three countries, of which seventeen reported population data. The total population world-wide was reported at just over 40000, with the largest numbers in France and Finland.[11]


Highland cattle were first imported into Australia by the mid-nineteenth century by Scottish migrants such as Chieftain Aeneas Ronaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, Scotland. Arriving in Port Albert, Victoria, in 1841 with his clan, they apparently drove their Highland cattle to a farm at Greenmount, on the Tarra River, preceded by a piper. Samuel Amess, also from Scotland, who made a fortune in the Victorian goldfields and became Mayor of Melbourne in 1869, kept a small fold of black Highland cattle on Churchill Island. They were seen and survived in Port Victoria during the late 1800s, but other folds were believed to have died out in areas such as New South Wales. In 1988 the Australian Highland Cattle Society was formed. Since then, numbers have been growing and semen is being exported to New Zealand to establish the breed there.


Highland cattle were first imported into Canada in the 1880s. The Hon. Donald A. Smith, Lord Strathcona of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Robert Campbell of Strathclair, Manitoba, imported one bull each. There were also Highland cattle in Nova Scotia in the 1880s.[12] However, their numbers were small until the 1920s when large-scale breeding and importing began.[13] In the 1950s cattle were imported from and exported to North America. The Canadian Highland Cattle Society was officially registered in 1964 and currently registers all purebred cattle in Canada.[14] Towards the end of the 1990s, there was a large semen and embryo trade between the UK and Canada. However that has stopped, largely due to the BSE (mad cow disease) outbreaks in the United Kingdom. Today, Highland cattle are mainly found in eastern Canada.[15] In 2001 the population for Canada and the United States of America combined was estimated at 10000.[5]: 244 


The Danish Highland Cattle Society was established in 1987 to promote the best practices for the breeding and care of Highland cattle and to promote the introduction of the breed into Denmark.[16]


The Highland Cattle Club of Finland was founded in 1997. Their studbooks show importation of Highland cattle breeding stock to Finland, dating back to 1884. The Finnish club states that in 2016, there were 13000 Highland cattle in Finland.[17]

United States[edit]

The first record of Highland cattle being imported to the United States was in the late 1890s.[18] The American Highland Cattle Association was first organised in 1948 as the American Scotch Highland Breeders Association, and now claims approximately 1100 members.[19]


The hair gives protection during the cold winter

They have long, wide horns and long, wavy, woolly coats. The usual coat colour is reddish brown, seen in approximately 60% of the population; some 22% are yellow, and the remainder pale silver, black or brindle/dun.[6]: 200  The coat colours are caused by alleles at the MC1R gene (E locus) and the PMEL or SILV gene (D locus).[20]

They have an unusual double coat of hair. On the outside is the oily outer hair—the longest of any cattle breed, covering a downy undercoat.[21] This makes them well suited to conditions in the Highlands, which have a high annual rainfall and sometimes very strong winds.[22]

Mature bulls can weigh up to 800 kg (1800 lb) and heifers can weigh up to 500 kg (1100 lb). Cows typically have a height of 90–106 cm (35–42 in), and bulls are typically in the range of 106–120 cm (42–47 in).[citation needed] Mating occurs throughout the year with a gestation period of approximately 277–290 days. Most commonly a single calf is born, but twins are not unknown. Sexual maturity is reached at about eighteen months. Highland cattle also have a longer expected lifespan than most other breeds of cattle, up to 20 years.[23]

Cold tolerance[edit]

All European cattle cope relatively well with low temperatures but Highland cattle have been described as "almost as cold-tolerant as the arctic-dwelling caribou and reindeer".[24] Conversely due to their thick coats they are much less tolerant of heat than zebu cattle, which originated in South Asia and are adapted for hot climates.[25] Highland cattle have been successfully established in countries where winters are substantially colder than Scotland such as Norway and Canada.[6]: 200 

Social behaviour[edit]

A fold of semi-wild Highland cattle was studied over a period of 4 years. It was found that the cattle have a clear structure and hierarchy of dominance, which reduces aggression. Social standing depends on age and sex, with older cattle being dominant to calves and younger ones, and males dominant to females. Young bulls will dominate adult cows when they reached around 2 years of age. Calves from the top ranking cow were given higher social status, despite minimal intervention from their mother. Playfighting, licking and mounting were seen as friendly contact.[26][27]

Breeding occurred in May and June, with heifers first giving birth at 2–3 years old.[26]


The meat of Highland cattle tends to be leaner than most beef because Highlands are largely insulated by their thick, shaggy hair rather than by subcutaneous fat. Highland cattle can produce beef at a reasonable profit from land that would otherwise normally be unsuitable for agriculture. The most profitable way to produce Highland beef is on poor pasture in their native land, the Highlands of Scotland.[28]

Commercial success[edit]

The beef from Highland cattle is very tender, but the market for high-quality meat has declined. To address this decline, it is common practice to breed Highland "suckler" cows with a more favourable breed such as a Shorthorn or Limousin bull. This allows the Highland cattle to produce a crossbred beef calf that has the tender beef of its mother on a carcass shape of more commercial value at slaughter.[29] These crossbred beef suckler cows inherit the hardiness, thrift and mothering capabilities of their Highland dams and the improved carcass configuration of their sires. Such crossbred sucklers can be further crossbred with a modern beef bull such as a Limousin or Charolais to produce high quality beef.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barbara Rischkowsky, Dafydd Pilling (editors) (2007). List of breeds documented in the Global Databank for Animal Genetic Resources, annex to The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome: Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 9789251057629. Archived 23 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Breed data sheet: Highland / United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Cattle). Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed November 2022.
  3. ^ Watchlist overview. Kenilworth, Warwickshire: Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Accessed December 2021.
  4. ^ "Highland Cattle Society breed standard". Highlandcattlesociety.com. Archived from the original on 10 May 2015. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  5. ^ a b c Janet Vorwald Dohner (2001). The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. New Haven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300088809.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Valerie Porter, Lawrence Alderson, Stephen J.G. Hall, D. Phillip Sponenberg (2016). Mason's World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding (sixth edition). Wallingford: CABI. ISBN 9781780647944.
  7. ^ James Wilson (1909). The Colours of Highland Cattle. The Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society. 12 (New Series): 66–76.
  8. ^ "Smallholder Series – Cattle Breeds". Archived from the original on 26 September 2017. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  9. ^ "Highland Cattle at Balmoral Castle". Archived from the original on 27 April 2015. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  10. ^ "Queen to found Highland Cattle fold". Glasgow Herald. 25 February 1954. Retrieved 11 September 2015 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Transboundary breed: Highland. Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed November 2022.
  12. ^ "Livestock Conservancy – Highland cattle". Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  13. ^ "Highland Cattle history in Canada". Canadian Highland Cattle Society. Archived from the original on 29 April 2015. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  14. ^ "Canadian Highland Cattle Society". Archived from the original on 28 May 2015. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  15. ^ "Highland Cattle World – Canada". Highland Cattle World. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  16. ^ "Danish Highland Cattle Society About". highland-cattle.dk. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  17. ^ "SHCC ry". Suomen Highland Cattle Club ry. (in Finnish). Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  18. ^ "American Highland Cattle Breed History". Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  19. ^ "American Highland Cattle Association History". Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  20. ^ Schmutz, S. M.; Dreger, D. L. (2013). "Interaction of MC1R and PMEL alleles on solid coat colors in Highland cattle". Anim Genet. 44 (1): 9–13. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2052.2012.02361.x. PMID 22524257.
  21. ^ "Highland Cattle in Alberta". The Alberta Beef Magazine. April 2006.
  22. ^ "Highland cattle – Britannic Rare Breeds". Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  23. ^ "Highland Cattle – Sea World". seaworld.org. Archived from the original on 8 March 2018. Retrieved 22 June 2015.
  24. ^ Campbell, John R; Douglas Kenealy, M.; Campbell, Karen L. (2009). Animal Sciences: The Biology, Care, and Production of Domestic Animals (4th ed.). Waveland Press. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-4786-0821-9.
  25. ^ Serif, S. M.; Johnson, H. D.; Lippincott, A. C. (March 1979). "The effects of heat exposure (31 °C) on zebu and Scottish Highland cattle". International Journal of Biometeorology. 23 (1): 9–14. Bibcode:1979IJBm...23....9S. doi:10.1007/BF01553372. PMID 500248. S2CID 33123426.
  26. ^ a b Reinhardt, Catherine; et al. (28 February 1985). "Social behaviour and reproductive performance in semi-wild Scottish Highland cattle". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 15 (2): 125–136. doi:10.1016/0168-1591(86)90058-4. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
  27. ^ Clutton-Brock, T. H.; Greenwood, P. J.; Powell, R. P. (1976). "Ranks and Relationships in Highland Ponies and Highland Cows". Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. 41 (2): 206–216. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1976.tb00477.x. PMID 961125.
  28. ^ "North East Highland Cattle – About the Breed" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 December 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  29. ^ "Highland cattle suckler beef". The British Charolais Cattle Society. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  30. ^ "Highland Cattle Society; the breed". The Highland Cattle Society. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2016.