WITH its sweeping horns, a long fringe dangling over its eyes, and a thick, shaggy coat covering its stocky frame, the highland cow is instantly recognizable.
The hardy highlander—one of the oldest-known breeds of cattle—has thrived for centuries in the harsh weather of the highlands and islands of Scotland. Originally, the cattle that grazed the remote highlands were larger and red-haired, while those from the islands off the west coast were smaller and usually black. Today, people regard the highlander as one breed, and its colors vary from red, black, tan, and yellow to almost white.
The highlander’s hairy, rather comical forelock plays a vital role. In the winter it keeps out the driving wind, rain, and snow. In the summer it provides protection from flying insects that could cause infection.
Although a group of cattle is often called a herd, the highlanders are referred to as a fold. This term dates back to olden times when at night crofters, or tenant farmers, brought their cattle into open-fronted stone shelters called folds. This was done to protect them from the severe weather and wolves.
Its Remarkable Coats
Unique among cattle, the highlander has a double coat of hair. The shaggy, outer coat is made of long hairs, sometimes reaching 13 inches (33 cm). This well-oiled woolly coat repels the rain and snow. Underneath that, the soft, woolly inner coat keeps the animal warm.
Jim, who has worked with highlanders for many years, explained: “Shampooing them is very difficult, as it is almost impossible to wet them through!” Because of its woolly covering, the highlander thrives and breeds on mountain terrain beset by pounding rain and freezing winds, where no other cattle breed can survive.
If the weather gets too hot and dry in the summer, the adaptable highlander sheds its heavy overcoat. Later, when the cold, damp weather returns, it grows a new one.
A Valuable Asset
While sheep tend to destroy vegetation by munching on roots and delicate shoots, cows—including the highlander—do not. In fact, the highlander improves poor grazing land. How? With its long, powerful horns and broad muzzle, it clears unwanted brush that most other breeds of cattle refuse to touch. This housekeeping makes way for grass and trees to regenerate.
The highlander’s two woolly coats offer another big advantage. Needing no extra layer of fat to keep warm, the highlander’s meat is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein and iron than beef from other cattle. And this top-quality meat is produced without the need for expensive feeds!
A Note of Caution
Highlanders have a long history of living close to humans. Early Scots kept them on the ground floor of their homes. The presence of the cattle contributed to the warmth of the upstairs, where the family lived.
Although domesticated cattle are generally calm and docile, at times some highlanders can be dangerous. For example, a mother with a baby calf can be very protective. Also, a person needs to take care to walk around a fold of highlanders and not through it.
The highlander’s versatility has made it a popular breed all over the world. It thrives as far north as Alaska and Scandinavia, and it can be found grazing 10,000 feet (3,000 m) up in the Andes Mountains. At the same time, though, it does well in warmer areas.
Scotland is known for tartan, kilts, and bagpipes, but also for its beautiful, unmistakable highland cattle. Do you have cows with two woolly coats where you live?