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New Zealand: Rare
Overseas: Rare
Importation: 1973

Highland Cattle

A Rare Breed of Scottish Origin

Highland cows, Cherish and Cherub, at Stoney Oaks  (Photo by Gail Simons.)
Highland cows, Cherish and Cherub, at Stoney Oaks   (Photo by Gail Simons)

      Highland cattle were the original domestic cattle of the western highlands of Scotland, a breed developed, and particularly suited to survive, in the harsh conditions prevailing in that area.

      Early English writers referred to them as “Highlanders” or “Black Cattle”, which was the prevailing colour (along with a few dun animals) in the seventeenth century. But in their own country they were simply known as “Kyloes”. There is some disagreement as to the origin of this name, some maintaining that it is the corruption of a Gaelic word meaning “Highland”, while others believe that the name was originally applied only to the animals of the Western Islands. These latter were said to be named after the kyloes or ferries on which they were moved from island to island and to and from the mainland.

      While the black colouring prevailed in the sixteen hundreds, and black animals were thought to be heavier and hardier (and therefore preferable), other colours were known, mostly to the east in Perthshire. White markings were also seen as desirable. Called "chaisfhionn", those so marked were said to indicate a good milking line.

Highland cow, Cherish, with her calf, Angel.  (Photo by Gail Simons.)
Highland cow, Cherish, with her calf, Angel   (Photo by Gail Simons)

      Originally the Highland cattle were kept outside all the year round and it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that even the feeding out of hay as winter fodder began to be practised. A writer in 1776 described the breed as “homely” – commonly small and black, with wide horns, sour faces and thick coats.

      In 1884 a Highland Cattle Society of Scotland was formed. By that time the Highlander was a markedly different animal from the old Kyloe of the Islands. A number of improvements to the breed had been made, particularly by those who not only selectively bred their herds but also made better feed and winter housing available.

      The first Herd Book was published in 1885. But although essentially a beef breed, the Highlander nevertheless found it hard to compete with the faster-growing commercial animals. Its ability to withstand harsh conditions was of little advantage outside of Scotland. Over the last century Highland Cattle, both in their country of origin and overseas, have been valued at least as much for their historic associations and ‘romantic’ appearance as for their utility.

Highland cattle (Photo by Gail Simons.)
Highland cattle   (Photo by Gail Simons)

      Although there are reports of Highlanders being imported into New Zealand early in the twentieth century, the breed does not appear to have survived at this time. Current herds began with Scottish and Canadian imports in 1973 and 1979 respectively. Most animals, however, derive from » breeding up programmes, particularly using imported semen.

      A New Zealand Highland Cattle Society was formed in 1993, and it is notable that cream-red coloration dominates over the brown or black – presumably a fashion preference.

      The Highlander is a useful beef breed on poor pasture and in cold conditions, producing a desirably lean carcase which more than compensates for its comparatively slow rate of maturing – particularly for the smallholder for whom breed interest is often as important as commercial considerations.

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