Highland Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Unique cattle raised primarily for their lean beef

By Janet Vorwald Dohner
Updated on May 16, 2022
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The undercoat of a Highland bull can grow up to 13 inches in length and provides warmth. The outer coat sheds water.
The undercoat of a Highland bull can grow up to 13 inches in length and provides warmth. The outer coat sheds water.
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Highland cattle are primarily raised for their naturally lean beef, which has made them the cattle of choice with Britain's royal family.
Highland cattle are primarily raised for their naturally lean beef, which has made them the cattle of choice with Britain's royal family.

A heritage livestock breed names for its ability to thrive on rocky terrain, Highland cattle are known by their shaggy mane and for their ability to produce lean, healthy meat off of rough pastures. The Scottish Highlands are famed as a mystical and romantic place of rugged mountains, moors, glens, ocean fjords, islands, barren rocks, and steep valleys falling into icy streams or lochs. The weather can be harsh, the landscape battered by cold, driving rain and snow. The small folds, or herds, of Highland cattle have been part of this landscape for thousands of years. These shaggy cattle are descended from the Hamitic Longhorns brought to Britain in the second millennium by Neolithic farming peoples. Through the centuries, Highland cattle were raised mainly as a beef and working breed but were occasionally milked.

Cattle raising was very important to the Scottish economy. Many observers also noted the continuous and numerous cattle raids, known as “reiving,” that occurred back and forth across the borders. The trade in cattle began in the Middle Ages and continued for centuries, interrupted only by war.

The first herd book of the breed society, written in 1884, stated: “No cattle in this country have retained in greater uniformity the same characteristics as a distinct breed than the Highlanders have done, and this seems to point to the conclusion that there has been little change in the character of this class of cattle, except that produced by a more careful system of breeding, so far back as any information on the subject can be obtained. . . . The breeding of cattle has been so general over the whole Highlands and Islands that no single breeder can be credited with the distinction of having started the breed.”

West Highland or Kyloe Cattle

The 1884 herd book describes the two distinct classes, or types, of Highland cattle to be found at that time. The type known as the West Highland, or Kyloe, was found mainly in the Western Isles of Scotland. The usual color of the Kyloe was black, and the cattle were smaller and shaggier than the mainland Highland cattle. It is not known whether this size was due to the harsher conditions of the islands or to a distinctive trait of the Kyloe. The herd book noted that colors besides black had been noticed only in “recent years” and came with introductions of cattle from Perthshire.

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