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Highland cattle

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Highland cattle
A Highland cow on Dartmoor in England
A Highland cow on Dartmoor in England
Conservation status Least Concern

Fluffy Cows

Hairy Cows
Country of origin Scotland
Distribution Worldwide (most common in Scotland and the USA)
Use Meat, can be used for milk on a domestic scale
Weight Male: 800 kilograms
  Female: 500 kilograms
Height Male: 106-120 centimetres (3.5-4ft)
  Female: 90-106 centimetres (3-3.5ft)
Bos (primigenius) taurus
Highland cows with a black coat
Highland cattle's hair gives protection during the cold winters.

Highland cattle (Scottish Gaelic: Bò Ghàidhealach; Scots: Heelain cattle) are a Scottish cattle breed. They have long horns and long wavy coats that are coloured black, brindled, red, yellow, or dun, and they are often farmed primarily for their meat.[1] They originated in the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland and were first mentioned in the 6th century A.D. The first herd book described two distinct types of Highland cattle but, due to crossbreeding between the two, only one type now exists. They have since been exported to other parts of the world, such as Australia, Norway and Canada.

They are a hardy breed due to their native environment, the Scottish Highlands. Bulls can weigh up to 800 kilogrammes and cows up to 500 kilogrammes. Their milk generally has a very high butterfat content, and their meat is regarded as one of the highest quality. It is gaining mainstream acceptance as it is low in cholesterol.

Breed characteristics[edit]

Highlands are known as a hardy breed well able to cope with the rugged nature of their native Scottish Highlands which have a high annual rainfall and sometimes very strong winds.[2] However, Highland cattle have also been successfully established in many temperate countries in Central Europe, and indeed in countries where winters are substantially colder than Scotland such as in Norway and Canada. Their hair is considered the longest of any cattle breed and provides protection from the winter cold. Their skill in foraging for food allows them to survive in steep mountain areas where they both graze and browse, and eat plants that many other cattle avoid. They can dig through the snow with their horns to find buried plants.[3]

Mature bulls can weigh up to 800 kg (1,800 pounds) and cows can weigh up to 500 kg (1,100 pounds). Cows typically have a height of 90-106 centimeters (3-3.5 ft) and bulls are typically in the range of 106-120 centimeters (3.5-4 ft).[4] 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.[5] It is breed standard that bulls must have horns.[6] The cows have traditionally been used as house cows as they have a docile temperament and the milk has a high butterfat content. They are generally good natured animals but very protective of their young.[7]



The breed was developed in the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland from two types of now extinct cattle, one originally black, and the other reddish.[8] The original cattle were brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers.[9] Highland cattle are known to have a history that dates back to at least the 6th century AD, while the first written evidence dates back to the 12th century AD.[10] Although there have been several coat colors in existence since the late 1800s, most are caused by alleles at the MC1R gene (E locus) and the PMEL or SILV gene (D locus).[11] Since the early 20th century, breeding stock has been exported to many parts of the world, especially Australia and North America.

Difference in types[edit]

There were two distinct types of Highland cattle first described in the 1885 herd book. One was the West Highland, or Kyloe which originated from the islands which had harsher conditions. These cattle tended to have black coats more frequently, and were smaller with longer hair due to their more rugged environment.[9] The other type was the mainland. These tended to be larger because their pastures provided richer nutrients; they came in a range of colours, most frequently dun or red.[12]

However, today these types have been crossbred so that there is no distinct difference and both are regarded as Highland cattle.[9][12]


Originally, small farmers kept Highlands as house cows to produce milk and for meat.[6] The Highland cattle registry ("herd book") was established in 1885. This is the oldest herd book in the world, which makes them the oldest registered cattle in the world.[13] Although groups of cattle are generally called herds, a group of Highlands is known as a fold. This is because in winter, the cattle were in open shelters made of stone called folds to protect them from the weather at night.[14] They were also known as kyloes in Scots.[15]

Queen Victoria declared that she preferred the dun coloured cattle. She also ordered Highlands to be kept at Balmoral Castle.[16][2] Highlands are still kept today at Balmoral.[17]


Highland cattle were first imported into Australia by the mid-19th century by Scottish migrants such as Chieftain Areneas 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 in Port Victoria 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.[18]


Highland cattle were first imported into Canada in the 1880s. Both the Honourable 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, Canada in the 1880s. However their numbers were small until the 1920s when large-scale breeding and importing began.[19] In the 1950s cattle were imported and exported from North America. The Canadian Highland cattle Society was officially registered in 1964 and currently registers all purebred cattle.[20] 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 outbreaks. Today, Highland cattle are mainly found in eastern Canada.[21]

Modern farming[edit]

The meat 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 unused agriculturally. The most profitable way to produce Highland beef is on poor pasture in their native land, the Highlands.[22] The meat is also gaining popularity in North America as the beef is low in cholesterol.[3]

Commercial success[edit]

The beef from Highland cattle is very tender. However, 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.[22] 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.[15]

Highland calves in pasture


For show purposes, Highland cattle are sometimes groomed with oils and conditioners to give their coats a fluffy appearance. This appearance is more apparent in calves, and it leads some outside the industry to call them fluffy cows.[23] Many also call the cows hairy cows, due to their thick coats.

Breed standard[edit]

The breed standard is a set of guidelines which are used to ensure that the animals produced by a breeder or breeding facility conform to the specifics of the standardized breed. All registered Highland cattle must conform to it. The breed standard was created in Inverness, 10 June 1885. There are four main parts to the standard: the head, the neck, the back and body, and the hair. Below is a concise list of the main points of the breed standard.[1] A judge in a show will judge the cattle against a provided breed standard.[24]

  • Head
    • Proportionate to body
    • Wide between eyes
    • Must have naturally have horns, but may be trimmed in commercial rearing
  • Neck
    • Clear, without dewlap
    • Straight line to body
  • Back and Body
    • The back must be rounded
    • The quarters must be wider than the hips
    • The legs must be short and straight
  • Hair
    • The hair must be straight and waved

Sources: Highland Cattle Society,[1][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Highland Cattle Society breed standard". Retrieved 2012-03-09. 
  2. ^ a b "Kintore Castle - Highland Cattle". Retrieved 7 June 2015. 
  3. ^ a b "Highland cattle and their landscape". A to Z Animals. Retrieved 2015-04-28. 
  4. ^ "Highland Cattle Characteristics - TC Permaculture". TCPermaculture. Retrieved 24 June 2015. 
  5. ^ "Highland Cattle - Sea World". Retrieved 22 June 2015. 
  6. ^ a b "NWHCA Highland cattle". Northwest Highland Cattle Association. Retrieved 2015-04-27. 
  7. ^ "Breeds – Highland". The Dairy Site. Retrieved 2015-04-27. 
  8. ^ James Wilson (1909), "ch. VIII The Colours of Highland Cattle", The Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society, Royal Dublin Society 
  9. ^ a b c "Highland cattle – Mother Earth News". Mother Earth News. Retrieved 30 May 2015. 
  10. ^ "History of Highland Cattle". Retrieved 2015-03-24. 
  11. ^ Schmutz, S. M. and Dreger, D. L. 2013. Interaction of MC1R and SILV alleles on solid coat colors in Highland Cattle. Animal Genetics 44:9–13.
  12. ^ a b "Gathbodhan Highland Cattle". Retrieved 30 May 2015. 
  13. ^ "Oklahoma University – Cattle Breeds". Oklahoma University. Oklahoma University. 
  14. ^ "Smallholder Series - Cattle Breeds". Retrieved 13 June 2015. 
  15. ^ a b "Highland Cattle Society; the breed". Retrieved 2012-03-09. 
  16. ^ "Breed History". Retrieved 7 June 2015. 
  17. ^ "Highland Cattle at Balmoral Castle". Retrieved 7 June 2015. 
  18. ^ "Australian HC Society". Australian Highland Cattle Society. Retrieved April 28, 2015. 
  19. ^ "Highland Cattle history in Canada". Canadian Highland Cattle Society. Retrieved April 28, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Canadian Highland Cattle Society". Retrieved 28 May 2015. 
  21. ^ "Highland Cattle World – Canada". Highland Cattle World. Retrieved 28 May 2015. 
  22. ^ a b "Commercial success of highland cattle". Willow Brook Park. Retrieved 2015-04-28. 
  23. ^ "Fluffy cows: Old Beauty practice gains attention". Associated Press. Retrieved 2013-06-21. 
  24. ^ a b "Breed Standard and Judging". Scottish Highland Cattle. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 

External links[edit]