Scottish Highland Cows have long vied with the Loch Ness Monster, unicorns and the wee midge for the title of Scotland’s most iconic creature.
A sighting of this noblest and magnificent of beasts never disappoints and is, for many visitors to these shores, a real highlight.
This feature is, therefore, a tribute to the Highland Cow, a gentle giant that has brightened many a day in the Scottish Highlands. This blog will try and answer some frequently asked questions that pop up from visitors to Scotland about this fuzzy icon.
Visitors to Scotland and those dreaming of this beautiful place are likely to conjure up images of whisky, mist, tartan, thistles, claymores, ruined castles, salmon and stags. A place has to be left in this pantheon of Scottish greats for the larger-than-life, ginger, long-horned cattle that, in Gaelic were called Bò Ghàidhealach. In Scots, they are known as Heilan coo and we now call them, quite simply, Highland Coos.
Spot Highland Cattle and iconic Scottish Wildlife on our Highland Wildlife Tour.
These are some of the characteristics of the Highland cow. However, the Highland is not always ginger and can come in black, brindle, red, yellow, and dun. There is considerable difference of opinion among breeders as to which is preferable.
The Victorians preferred ginger and started breeding selectively to maximise reddish stock, resulting in the prevalence today.
Highland cows can be found all over the Highland. Often these furry beasts can be spotted in fields along the roads, especially in the Cairngorms National Park or roaming free on the road itself in places like the North West.
Highland cattle originate from the West of Scotland and are, as a breed, exceptionally hardy. They are perfectly adapted to the harsh climate, strong winds, heavy rainfall and poor grazing of the hills and mountains they call home. Able to live outside throughout the year and with a natural ability to convert poor grazing efficiently, their hardiness ensures their popularity and continuing survival. These cattle have been exported around the world and can now be found grazing at over 10,000 feet in the Andes.
The horns of a cow (the female of the breed) tend to be narrower at the base, longer and finer at the tip than those of a bull. They can take one of the two classical shapes but should always rise after exiting the head more or less horizontally. By contrast, those of the Highland bull come out from the body level with the ground and curve slightly forward. They may rise slightly towards the tip but no more than this. See if you can tell the bulls from the cows in the pictures accompanying this feature…
The temperament of a Highland cow is generally good and this is worth knowing when approaching them for those memorable photos. Caution should always be exercised of course, especially if they have young calves as they can be very protective of their young. Particular care should also be taken if you are with a dog. Dogs should be kept close or on a lead when around livestock especially if they are pregnant or have young. This avoids stressing livestock and also keeps you safe as cattle (including Highland cows) can be unpredictable around dogs.
Despite their fearsome appearance, you may be surprised to learn that Highland cows are not known to be aggressive to each other. Indeed, behavioural studies have found that their social hierarchies and ability to read each other means that they have little reason for conflict.
Highland cows are known for the high butterfat content of their milk and the quality of their meat. Consequently, in times gone by, they were kept as house cows for milk and meat. Highland cows are slow maturing, their meat is fine textured, tender, and succulent. Today, the health qualities of the meat of Highland cows has been confirmed scientifically: according to a study conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College, Highland beef is significantly (about 40%) lower in fat and cholesterol.
Today, the Highland Cow is viewed primarily as a beef cow and is gaining popularity in North America because of its low cholesterol levels. However, the market for high-quality meat is small and declining, and so is increasingly they are being used to produce a crossbreed cow. Highland cows are crossed with Short Horns or Limousins. These crosses retain the hardiness and tender beef of the mother but whose carcass shape carries more value at slaughter. These crosses can be further crossed with beef bulls such as the Charolais and Limousin to produce high-quality beef.
Highland cattle are also increasingly viewed as the ideal choice for conservation grazing. They are hardy grazers and will often graze a range of vegetation unpalatable to other breeds. Surprisingly, they are also relatively light in weight (and on their feet) and this minimises the damage underfoot.
Highland cows are the oldest registered breed in the World, however, this is mostly due to the fact that their Herd Book predates all others. The Highland Cattle Society was founded in 1884. The Society was responsible for publishing the Breed Standard, which remains unchanged to this day. In 1885, the Society published the first Herd Book. The following extract from the Standard sums up the beauty of this majestic animal’s head:
“Of all the representatives of our British bovine breeds, the Highlander has the grandest and most picturesque head. It is, indeed, to his head that he owes his great favour among artists. As a rule, it is most proportionate to the body of the animal, and is broad between the eyes, while short from the eyes to the point of the muzzle. The forelock between the eyes should be wide, long and bushy, and any nakedness or bareness there is certain to detract from the appearance of the animal. Some would almost have the hair so wide there as to obscure the eyes, but this in many cases would be allowing one good point to over-shadow another.”
This record of the breed has been kept up to date and provides a reliable and permanent record of this beast’s lineage as far back as the end of the 19th Century. Written records extend back to the 18th Century but, it is probably safe to say that the Highlander’s distinguished ancestry stretches back far beyond written records, where they appear to have first been mentioned in the 12th Century AD.
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