Highland cattle tend to evoke many emotions in people. Whether it's the vision of a wide-horned female high knee-high in Scottish heather or the sight of a small fluffy highland calf peeking from behind its mother's legs, Highlands have the rare ability to become more than cattle being bred for commercial gain. In fact, many Highland owners have been looked down upon for buying an animal purely for its looks.
Highlands are intrinsically linked to the Scottish Highlands, the home of this ancient breed. Much has been written about the role Highlands played in providing crofters with meat and milk, but Highlands were much more than a source of comfort to Highland dwellers. The cattle formed the basis for their way of life, being driven to the summer hills at Beltane, and returning at Samhain. The cattle dictated not only what was eaten, but where they lived, the rituals performed and the very basis for commerce.
But what is it about Highlands that makes them special in modern times?
Of course, being horned is not unique to the breed, but having horns and a long double-layed coat is something that no other British breed shares. It's this long coat that also means that Highlands are the only breed allowed outside during a European Union winter. The outer layer of the coat is shed in the summer, which is particularly noticeable in male animals. Both layers of hair are prone to matting, making them quite a good option for felting, and there is evidence that Highland hair has been used to make rope in ancient times.
Colour is another trait that sets Highlands apart. They are the only breed of cattle that has such a wide variance of colour. The New Zealand Highland Society accepts 6 official colours - white, yellow, red, brindle (dark red), dun (grey ) and black. In "A Keen Eye" Una Cochrane talks about Highlands having a colour-changing gene, which allows calves to be born one colour that takes advantage of the dominant season colours of spring in the Highlands, but by the time they reach their first birthday, they usually have become a completely different colour. This trait can make registering young calves rather difficult, as no one can be quite sure of their final colour!
There is debate about whether a Highland that is not of solid colour is a purebred Highland. "Parti colour" Highlands are animals that have significant patches of white in their coat. The Highland Society based in England accepts parti colour animals in their register, but in New Zealand, animals are only allowed if the white does not extend past the underbelly.
Its also very common for Highland animals to live well past any other breed, with many females happily producing and raising a calf at age 13 or 14. This effectively gives a long reproductive career and the chance for the owners to develop a 'relationship' with Highlands over a much longer time. It also reduces replacement costs significantly!
Although unique, these physical characteristics do not explain why the breed elicits such strong emotional reactions in owners and non-owners alike. Perhaps it is the strong link in many New Zealanders' heritage to their own Scottish roots. Whatever the reason, many Highland purchases have had more to do with emotional attachment than with any commercial reasoning.
However as the numbers of Highlands in New Zealand grow, the focus on breeding Highlands for more than good looks and lawnmowing the front paddock also grows. Exciting research and innovation both here and offshore is ensuring that this ancient and magnificent breed is now returning back to its original roots of providing an important way of life for its owners.
The New Zealand Highland Cattle Society is the oldest Highland Cattle society in New Zealand and has been registering cattle since June 1993. The NZHCS Herdbook currently has over 5000 cattle registered and has over 450 members. For more information please visit their website www.highlandcattle.org.nz