Scottish Highland Cattle

This shaggy-haired, long-horned animal is 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. The breed was improved and standardized during the 1800s through selection alone, with no introductions from other breeds. The breed became well known in Scotland and England, and a herdbook was established in 1884. The breed has always had a small but loyal following, especially in the northern part of the United States and in Canada. However, it is only recently that Highlands are achieving their greatest popularity.

It is best known for its survival qualities hardiness, maternal abilities, reproductive efficiency, and longevity. Highland cattle thrive on rough forage and in cold, wet climates. 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. Like the other Scottish beef breeds, the Galloway, Belted Galloway, and Angus, the Highland is celebrated for the excellence of its beef.

Highlands are medium in size, with cows weighing 900–1,300 pounds and bulls 1,500–2,000 pounds. Cattle have long, shaggy coats. Light red is the most common color, 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.

Highland cattle were first imported to North America in the 1880s, and importations have continued. The United States and Canada may soon be the best reservoir of purebred Highland genetics in the world. The breed, though relatively numerous, has remained a conservation priority, with emphasis placed on the estimated 10,000 Highlands in North America.

10 Things You Should Know About Highland Cattle

1. The breed’s history is composed of two different types of Highland cattle; however, decades of crossbreeding have faded the lines between the two, leaving only one official Highland cattle type.

2. Records also show that Highland is actually the oldest registered breed in the world, having their herd book predate all others.

3. The Highland breed is predominantly used for beef production, but can be milked on a small scale. Their milk has a high butterfat content, which some farmers may find appealing.

4. Highland body heat is retained by their thick coat and not stored in excess
fat, so their meat is quite lean. Studies show that their beef is about 38% lower in fat than other beef breeds with high protein and iron levels. When cross-bred with larger sires, such as Shorthorn or Limousin, their meat becomes much more commercially desirable.

5. Interestingly, a group of Highland cattle is not called a herd, but a ‘fold’ instead.

6. Their coat is often the most discussed attribute of these cattle. However, not widely known, is that their coloring can vary between black, brindle, yellow and even white!

7. Their double-layered hair can reach about 13 inches. The outer hair is oiled to prevent rain seeping into their skin. The downy undercoat provides warmth during the rough and rainy Scottish winters.

8. They have great longevity! This reduces herd replacement costs, since they’re known to live for about 20 years; a considerably longer lifespan than other beef breeds. The average number of calves per cow is 12, and some cows can still calve into their eighteenth year!

9. Highland cattle are usually able to mate at about 18 months of age, and pregnancy in Highland cows usually lasts up to 290 days. They can often calve unassisted, cutting down on veterinary costs during the birth process.

10. Highland cattle health is quite good! Their short legs ensure that problems are also kept to a minimum, and their long fringes protect their eyes and facial area.