The Highland breed originally comes from the Highlands and western Scottish islands. Here, the breed became accustomed to the harsh North Atlantic climates, which explains why the breed is considered to be extremely adaptable today. In the early days, two categories existed: the Kyloes of the west coastal Islands, and the Highlanders of the mainland. Island conditions were typically more severe, which explains why Kyoles, that were usually black, had smaller body types than their mainland counterparts. Highland cattle are the oldest registered breed.
Double layered, long, fringed coats and grand, curved horns make Highland cattle easily recognisable. Their coats are also recognised for their versatility: in winter, oily deposits help the breed to shed rain and snow, during Summer, Highlands can shed a layer of heavy hair. Coat colour varies between black, red, yellow, brindled and dun.
Common traits include longevity (some cows as old as 18 are known to bear calves), efficient feed conversion (despite poor pasture), good foraging abilities, strong hybrid vigour, disease resistance, easy calving, excellent maternal behaviour, hardiness and rapid calf growth. On average, mature bulls weigh around 800 kilograms, while mature cows generally reach 500 kilograms.
Highland carcases are known to yield lean, well-marbled, tender and flavoursome beef. Lean meat is achieved because their double-layered coats provide sufficient insulation, as opposed to subcutaneous fat serving the same purpose. Their beef is acknowledged for its low fat and cholesterol levels, coupled with impressive rates of protein and iron. Highland cattle are often used in cross-breeding programs, notably with Beef Shorthorn bulls. Females are known to produce quality milk, rich in butter fat.
Due to the efforts of Scottish migrants, Highland cattle first arrived in Australia during the mid-1800's. Since then, despite additional imports of stock, artificial breeding has ensured the breed is now firmly established here. The Australian Highland Cattle Society of Australia Inc provides relevant information and data for breeders and the public.
Today, Highland cattle are distributed throughout the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden. Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Holland and South America.