DISTINCTIVE HIGHLAND BREED HAS DEVELOPED INTO A TOUGH, SELF-SUFFICIENT ANIMAL
Few sights are as evocative of the Scottish winter landscape as a herd of majestic Highland cattle, their shaggy, brick red coats standing proud against the white of the snow.
With their long, thick coat of hair and curved horns, Highland cattle are instantly recognisable. It is these attributes that have earned them the epithet ‘all hair and horn’. Strong, bulky animals, they have evolved to survive on the poorest of soils.
Written records for the breed go back as far as the 18th century. The official pedigree dates from 1885, when the Highland Cattle Herd Book was first published. This makes it the oldest registered cattle breed. It is this heritage that has earned them the name, The Old Breed.
Its origins in the west of Scotland means it has developed as a tough and self-sufficient animal. Here, the weather conditions are unpredictable and severe. There is high rainfall, strong to gale-force winds and long, cold winters. After centuries adapting to these conditions, Highland cattle thrive in areas where other cattle would struggle. They graze on plants such as the tough moorland grasses avoided by other cattle.
Today, herds, known as folds, of these substantial and dramatic animals can be found throughout Britain. They are equally at home on the flower-rich machair of the Western Isles or the chalk grasslands of the South Downs.
There were originally two types, West Highland and Mainland Highland. The West Highland were found mainly on the west Scottish islands of the Inner Hebrides. They were smaller and mainly black coated. The Mainland cattle were larger, with brown or yellow coats. After centuries of interbreeding, the distinction has disappeared.
Black, brown and yellow remain accepted coat colours for the breed, together with dun, cream or yellowish. The majority today have coats that are shades of red. It has a downy undercoat and a long outer coat that reaches up to 13in (33cm) in length. Well oiled to shed rain and snow, it shields the animal from the worst of the weather. The characteristic dossan (fringe) covers the eyes, providing protection from the sun and flies.
The breed standard laid down more than a century ago in the first Highland Cattle Herd Book states that the coat should be “long and gracefully waved, very much as in what dog-breeders denote wavy-coated retrievers. To have a curl is to possess a decided fault”.
With their hairy coats providing so much insulation, these hardy animals do not need a layer of subcutaneous fat beneath their skin. As a result, the meat they produce contains lower levels of fat and cholesterol than in other cattle. It also has a high protein and iron content. Because they have evolved to cope with a sparse diet, Highland cows thrive on grass grown without the aid of chemical fertilisers.
In the past, they were of utmost importance for crofters. They provided milk and meat to sell or barter and supplemented their meagre diet. This made the difference between survival or not for those eking out a living on the windswept islands of the Hebrides or the bleak moors of the Scottish mainland.
Their ability to make the most of poor forage, calving outside and seldom, if ever, housed, the breed remains crucial to the rural farming economy of the Scottish Highlands.
Solidly built, Highland bulls weigh between 1700 and 2000lb (770 to 990kg), while the smaller cows weigh between 1100 and 1300lb (450 to 590kg).
Today’s pedigree animals still show the characteristics set out in 1885 when the Highland Cattle Society of Scotland was formed. This defined the distinctive features of the true Highland animal. The magnificent head must be in proportion to the body, broad between the eyes and short from the eyes to the point of the muzzle. The eyes are bright and full, the forelock long and bushy. The muzzle should be short, though very broad in front, and with the nostrils fully distended.
That most distinctive feature, the horns, give the animal “a stamp of nobility”. They are the animal’s defence against predators. The standard requires the bull to have broad horns, coming level out of the side of the head. They incline slightly forwards, and rise towards the points. The cow’s horns are thinner and more delicate than the bull’s, rising sooner and slightly longer.
These long pointed horns give the cattle a fierce appearance, but their temperament is quiet and calm.
The breed is well known for its longevity, typically continuing to breed to the age of 18. During this time a female may give birth to as many as 15 calves.
Mating takes place throughout the year, and pregnancy lasts approximately 285 days. The females calve easily and have a highly developed mothering instinct. Abandoned calves are a rarity. The mother’s milk is rich in butterfat, which helps their offspring develop well. The calves are weaned after six to eight months.
It is for these qualities as much as its meat that the Highland breed is prized. The ability to calf easily and rear healthy offspring are particularly important when the female is crossed with another breed of bull. Referred to as the ‘Hybrid Vigour’, it is traced through the female line.
Highland cattle are popular as a show animal, bred to win prizes at agricultural and country fairs. They are often groomed with oils, which give their coat a fluffy appearance.
They are also used in conservation programmes. A fold on the Isle of Wight clears and controls vegetation on chalk grassland. Scottish Natural Heritage used 15 heifers to transform an important wildlife site at St Cyrus, on the Aberdeenshire coast. Here, by grazing the long grasses and undergrowth, they cleared the ground for dormant wildflower seeds to grow. The result was to turn rank grassland into a flourishing wildflower, insect-rich meadow.
The Old Breed is an impressive, hardy animal that encapsulates the beauty and nature of the land it comes from. Self-sufficient and dignified, it is an aristocrat among cattle.
Words: Stephen Moss Photography: Alamy