The north Atlantic coast of Scotland is a particularly wild, rugged region. Little wonder, then, that both its people and its animals were equally wild and rugged, well suited for a struggle for existence in a harsh climate.
One of the hardy animals that has made its home in Scotland since time immemorial is the Highland breed of cattle. Small, hairy, and horned, it could fight both bitter winters and savage wolves—and win. No other breed could have survived in such unforgiving conditions, and the old Scottish crofters (small-scale farmers) valued its hardiness.
Highland cattle made existence possible in Scotland. Their strength could be used to haul heavy loads, their hair could be spun into durable clothing, and their milk and meat could be used for food. Some crofters even brought their cattle into the house at night to heat the upper story!
Between 1760 and 1820, the British recognized the value of Highland beef. Tens of thousands of cattle were driven south to the border country between Scotland and England to be fattened on lusher pastures. These cattle drives served two primary purposes: they fed the growing industrialized population of England, and they brought commerce to the Scottish Highlands, ending the days of the clans. Some of the descendants of the Scottish cattle drivers would also go on to start the cattle drive era in America.
It is unclear when the Highland first came to North America. Although it may have arrived with Scotch-Irish emigrants at an earlier date, the first recorded importation was to Manitoba, Canada, in 1882. As the Highland proved itself in that cold climate, cattlemen in states such as Montana and Wyoming started their own herds to improve some of the less hardy but more popular beef breeds. From there the breed spread across America, and by the early 1950s Canada and America were regularly exchanging Highland cattle.
The Highland is now found in small herds (called folds) all across America. Thanks to its toughness and unique appearance, it won a steady following right from the start, and the recent enthusiasm for small farms, heritage breeds, and natural foods has brought it unprecedented attention.
Popularity never comes without risks, however. The Highland breed is currently caught in a tug-of-war between the conflicting interests of the show ring and the commodity market. Some bloodlines are raised mainly for looks, while others are bred to be fast-growing producers of conventional marbled beef. What will become of the traditional hardy Highland remains to be seen.
In America, the Highland largely has a reputation as a novelty animal kept mainly for its good looks. Although it does make a good pet, tourist attraction, or photographer’s model, the Highland has so much else to offer.
The breed performs very well as a lean beef animal in low-input and organic systems, particularly when direct marketed. For more conventional beef, it can be crossed with a marbled breed such as the Angus.
The Highland also does moderately well as a homestead dairy animal. Its milk is very suitable for products such as cheese and butter.
The breed can also pull a plow or a wagon, clear land of brush, and protect sheep from predators. Its horns can be polished for decorations, and its hair can be spun into yarn. Even its hide makes a good blanket or rug.
The Highland is one of the few breeds of cattle that still has its natural instincts. Its quiet self-confidence makes it a docile, reliable animal, one that even beginners can handle with ease. It does not stress easily. Even the bulls, though still potentially dangerous, are fairly good-natured.
But Highlands are not lazy pushovers! They are incredibly intelligent and athletic. If they tire of their present situation, they will make a quick escape.
Also note that, while quite mannerly if handled on a routine basis, Highlands can become wild if they are not exposed to humans regularly.
Other natural instincts that the traditional Highland exhibits are a strong herd instinct and an aggressive demeanor toward predators. The cows carefully hide their calves when grazing, and the calves do not stray from their mothers. Unfortunately, some of these instincts have been lost in Highlands bred for commodity beef production.
The traditional Highland has an incredible immune system and a sound body structure. Combine this with an even temperament not prone to stress, and the result is a breed with few health problems.
There are only two main health concerns that most owners will have to worry about—heat stroke and overgrown hooves. The first is mainly a problem in calves that have not started to shed yet, and the second can be avoided with regular hoof trimming.
Unfortunately, Highlands bred for commodity use tend to have more health problems. This fast-growing variety is known for structural breakdowns in the legs and udder.
- Affordable prices.
- Remarkable tolerance of long-distance shipping.
- Temperament suitable for beginners.
- Extreme hardiness.
- Hardiness against predators.
- Small size that is easier on pastures and allows for higher stocking rates.
- Exceptional cold tolerance.
- Ability to thrive on poor pastures.
- Taste for undesirable weeds and brush, including cedar and poison ivy.
- Longevity; calves annually until 15 to 20 years old.
- High fertility.
- Calving ease.
- High survival rates.
- Excellent mothering instincts.
- Milk production ideal for homestead use.
- High butterfat content.
- Good meat yield.
- Very lean beef.
- Rich taste, comparable to bison.
- Fine texture.
- Low fat and cholesterol, but high protein, according to Scottish Agricultural College.
- Great hybrid vigor when crossed to other breeds.
- Variable quality; some bloodlines have issues with health and temperament.
- Strong dislike of confinement.
- Dangerous horns.
- Long hair, which may gather mud.
- High-maintenance hooves.
- Trouble with ticks and lice in hot weather.
- Poor heat tolerance.
- Late maturity.
- Low milk production.
- Slow to finish for beef.
- Meat easily overcooked.
- Poor prices in sale barns because of horns and hair.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Highland right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Highland breed. Free sample pages are available here.