At first sight, the shaggy, comical, and toupee-like hair that tumbles down into their eyes and faces is the most notable distinguishing characteristic of the gentle and almost woolly, Highland breed of cattle.
These long-horned, stocky animals originated and were bred for centuries in the rugged, rocky climate of the Scottish Highlands. Harsh and severe weather conditions brought about the process of Mother Nature’s natural selection, allowing for only the most adaptable, strong, and genetically superior animals to survive and carry on this sturdy breed.
As far as Scottish history has been recorded, two classes of Highland cattle were bred for centuries in the North British Isles. The first, called the Kyloe or West-Highlander, inhabited the Atlantic wind-lashed islands off the West Coast of Northern Scotland. These were normally smaller, all-black cattle as compared with the second variety, called the Highlander which was larger, due to perhaps a less severe climate inland with more forage. This variety was usually red or brown in color. The resultant breed at present-day is a melding of the two originals, and now the breed is one, known simply as the “Highland”. All colors, including whites, brindles, yellows, and silvers are acceptable in the breed, along with the traditional black and brown.
The Highland Cattle Society of Scotland was formed in 1884, and a book on the subject was published in 1885, resulting in a widespread interest in all of North America in the cattle industry regarding this hardy breed. The purchase and importation of the first breeding stock animals of this breed followed shortly, and Highland cattle were soon imported to Canada in the 1880s, first to the harsh winter climates of Manitoba, and then to the Maritimes, where they adapted with ease and thrived, then as they say, “the rest is history”. Highland cattle became well-known for their many positive attributes throughout all of North America’s cattle industry.
Some of the special qualities these truly majestic, Muskox-looking animals possess include the ease with which they are kept. Highland cattle are widely considered to be THE hardiest breed of cattle to be found anywhere in the world. The success of the resulting importation of these Highlands to North America, sparked worldwide interest in exportation to Australia, South America, and the far reaches of Europe, where they are kept and thrive as they do in Canada. Cold climates have little effect on them and are found raised as far North as Alaska and the Yukon, as well as in wintry Scandinavia. As well, warm climates are conducive to their propagation as registered breeding ranches are found today even in Texas, and Georgia in the Southern United States.
Despite their long horns and shaggy, “wild” looking appearance, both bulls and cows are notably mild-tempered. The cows possess excellent mothering abilities and instincts, as well as very low calf mortality and ease and independence of birthing, making them an excellent choice of breed for maintenance and range purposes.
Highland cattle require little in the way of shelter, feed supplements, or extensive graining to maintain good condition. Highlands are excellent foragers and browsers, independently making the most of the scrubbiest, brush-filled land as is found in their centuries-old, native habitat. Mature bulls at breeding condition, weigh in at about 800 kgs (1,800 lbs), cows at 500 kgs (1,100 lbs.), and steers finish out at 450 kgs (1,000 lbs). In fact, to maintain leanness, steers are grown and finished on pasture over 2 years, rather than by the popular heavy feed-lot graining method over a period of only a few months.
But as gorgeous as these furry cattle are to look at, and as adorable as the calves are with their furry little heads (THIS correspondent and owner would most certainly make PETS out of them!), the business end of any beef animal is judged by the quality of its rendering meat product. The present-day beef market demands leaner meats, and Highlands are and have always been, superior in this department as well. Mainly due to their insulating long body hair, rather than being insulated by a layer of fat on their bodies, Highland cattle produce leaner meat. Highland beef is well-marbled and flavorful, with little waste fat at all resulting in a superior beef product, with less overall cost involved in feed and forage, and less overall care and herd maintenance needed.
An interesting bit of trivia is that the British Royal Family owns a large herd of Highlands, kept at their Balmoral Castle Estate grounds, near Braemar, Scotland. Highlands are considered the beef animal of choice by the Queen, and the Royal family have been fanciers of this breed for over a century.
The Canadian Highland Cattle Association uses the services of the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation for verification purposes and the recording of all known pedigrees of registered Highland cattle in Canada, to maintain the purity of this ancient breed, for the next centuries to come. Fanciers of this breed can be found on the Internet in abundance, a testament to the popularity of this breed.
The cattle/beef industry has and is a demanding one at present day, regardless of whether the rancher has a small operation with only a few head or hundreds. Objectives for profit must be the same: to produce a fine cut of beef, with as little expense and effort possible. It is well-considered among cattle fanciers and Highland breeders, that Highland cattle will indeed produce the finest beef, with the least amount of expense or effort, being so much hardier than many other breeds, particularly for our Northern Canadian climate, where many cattle ranches are in abundance.
The ability of these cattle to thrive in almost any climate or conditions for forage, their mild temperaments, excellent reproductive characteristics, and independent survival instincts, make the Highland an excellent choice of breed to the cattle rancher. Whether interests lie in retaining the purity of the breed standard, or for cross-breeding purposes, to increase climatic adaptability as well as many other desired characteristics, Highlands are certainly a superior and time-tested breed.
Highland cattle are truly a breed apart, not just because of their unique appearance. Their hardiness and adaptability to our own harsh Canadian climate, has certainly earned them this prestigious title.