History and Breed Standards

History of Highland Cattle

HIGHLAND CATTLE are an ancient breed of cattle that has nibbled on Scottish grass from the 6th century.  It is still not known if the cattle evolved in Scotland or whether they came from Scandinavia with the Norse Invaders.  Many Scholars think that the Highland Cattle are the end result of combining two ancient Asiatic breeds, the Bos Longifrons and the Bos Primigenius.  The Highland Cattle inherit their long horns from the Longifrons and inherit their long hair from the Primigenius.  Highland Cattle are dual purpose cattle and have provided a supply of milk and meat for many hundreds of years and are still successfully used to provide milk and high quality meat in many countries.

Highland Cattle were imported into Australia in the 19th century, arriving in Victoria in 1841 and later spread to South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania.  The recent history of Highland Cattle began in 1954 when two in-calf cows and a bull were imported into South Australia and then during the 1980's the interest in Highland Cattle rose with articles in newspapers and television shows.  Showcasing Highland Cattle at various shows created more interest and even more live cattle were imported.

A.I. programmes started by importing semen from various bulls from Scotland and this still is the case today by the breeders of the highest quality Highland Cattle.  Bulls are sourced from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and United States.  The technology also exists to transfer embryos from other countries by following strict quarantine protocols.  Highland Cattle are now not brought in live because of danger of introducing diseases not present in Australia for example Foot & Mouth disease and BSE (Mad Cow disease).

The Highlands coat is long on the top and short underneath with the longer hair being coarser so that the animals are protected from the cold weather, yet they moult and can also live in hotter climates as seen here in Australia.  The animals are usually docile and easy to handle and this is a reason that makes them so popular - but they do have an established pecking order and this becomes very obvious when they are in their herds. Highland Cattle are known for longevity from other breeds of cattle and can still be calving at 18-20 years of age.  They usually calve easily without assistance and are extremely good mothers - these important traits are in danger of being lost in many of the modern commercial breeds of cattle. 'Longevity reduces replacement cost'

​What is a Breed Standard?

Why are they all different? A breed standard is a set of guidelines which is used to ensure that the animals produced by a breeder conform to the specifics of the breed.  Breed standards are devised by the relevant national Highland Cattle Societies and are written to reflect the use or purpose of the species and breed of the animal.  Breed standards help define the ideal animal of a breed and provide goals for breeders to improve their Highlanders.  A breed standard is a written “picture” that describes the optimal Highlander. Specifically, a breed standard is a specification that, if achieved, will ensure the animal is fit for purpose in all respects e.g. Structure, Muscling, Size, Mobility, Reproduction etc.

Importantly for Highland Cattle there are aspects to the various national breed standards such as “Breed Character” that may appear to be superficial and visual in nature but have a real value in the modern world.  For example, the long double coat of the highlander insulates in winter and reduces winter feed requirements when compared to modern commercial cattle.  The “Dossan” or long fringe of hair over the head and eyes is excellent at diverting rain away from the eyes in wet climates like the United Kingdom (and New Zealand) and also protects the eyes from flies and fly bourne diseases in warmer countries like Australia.

Cattle being judged in a show ring should be judged against the breed standard and a good judge will usually request a copy of the relevant breed standard to study prior to arriving at the show venue.  A large degree of deviation from the breed standard, an excess of faults, or certain defined major faults, may indicate that the animal should not be allowed to reproduce, although its fitness for other uses (such as a beef carcase) may not be impeded by the observed faults.  An animal that closely matches (conforms to) the breed standard for its species and breed is said to have good conformation.  Some faults are common to all Beef Cattle;  Some such as horns & coats etc. may only be specific to Highlanders.

Over time and depending on the country, breed standards do change for various reasons but at Ennerdale we base our genetic improvement program on the original 1885 Scottish Breed Standard.  This does not mean that we have not evolved our outlook, but it does give us a reference that ensures we breed traits that have withstood the test of time, we do not look for rapid changes in traits as this can lead to animals that lose important traits that nature gave to the Highland Cow over many thousands of years and are lacking in todays “Commercial Cattle”.  We still try and breed a Scottish type Highlander; other breeders may prefer a different approach.

Differences between the breed standards

There are some differences between the breed standards - UK Highland Cattle Society (1885), NZHCS (2011) and AHCS (1994) for example:

  • The term "Full Blood" is not recognised by the UK Highland Cattle Society. In our opinion it is merely a marketing term used by a number of Australian Breeders to increase the sale price of Cattle and does not reflect better quality or in some cases a correct pedigree.
  • An animal described as Parti Colour, even if it was described as “Full Blood”, would not be registerable in the UK or New Zealand Herd books but is registerable in the Australian Herd-book.
  • A Polled Animal would not be registerable in the UK, NZ or Australian Highland Cattle Society Herd-books if it was declared as a poll.
  • A Miniature highlander would not be registerable in the UK, NZ or Australian Highland Cattle Society Herd-books if declared as such.
  • Although an animal with “Crop ear” is not registerable in NZ (males) Australia (males or females) it is registerable in the UK, although many breeders see it as an undesirable trait - some don’t mind as it is visual and does not affect the quality of a Highland Carcase.

Highland Cattle Society UK Breed Standard

Inverness, 10th June, 1885.

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.

The eyes should be bright and full, and denoting, when excited, high courage.  When viewed sideways, there should be a proportionate breadth of the jawbones readily observable, when compared with the width of the head in front, whilst the muzzle should, when looked at from a similar point, be short, though very broad in front, and with the nostrils fully distended, and indicating breeding in every way.  One of the most noteworthy features in a Highlander, is of course, the horns. In the bulls, the horns should be strong, and come level out of the head, slightly inclining forwards, and also slightly rising towards the points.

Some, however, do not care for this rise, though any drooping is considered to be a very bad fault when between the crown and the commencement of the curve, as this is generally accompanied by a low weak back.  Some, too, are of opinion that the masculine appearance is slightly detracted from when the horns rise directly from the crown.  This, however, can only readily be detected and commented upon when particular animals are brought before experienced judges, as within a show ring.

As regards the horns of the cow, there prevail two opinions.  As a rule, they come squarer out from the head than in the male, rise sooner, and are somewhat longer, though they preserve their substance and a rich reddish appearance to the very tips.  The lack of the appearance of substance or "sappiness" about the horns of the male would be very much against the animal in the show-yard.  The other taste is that for a female, the horns of which come more level from the head, with a peculiar back set curve, and very wide sweep.  A large number of enthusiastic breeders seem to prefer, by comparison, the latter, which gives possibly the more graceful appearance.  In all cases, however, the horns of a Highlander, when well set, gives the animal a stamp of nobility which causes it to attract the attention of any stranger who might pass heedlessly by animals of other breeds as merely cows, bulls or oxen.

THE NECK AND SHOULDERS - The neck should be altogether clear and without dewlap below.  It should form a straight line from the head to the shoulder in the cow, but in the bulls should have that distinct crest common to all animals of the bovine species.  This crest should come gracefully down to the roots of the horns, and, being well coated with wavy hair, the masculine appearance of the animal is fully completed.  The shoulder should be thick and should fill out greatly as it descends from the point to the lower extremity of the forearm.

BACK, BODY AND HIND-QUARTERS - From behind the shoulder the back should be fully developed and beautifully rounded.  Any slight sinking or hollow is most decidedly objectionable.  It should also, as in the Ayrshire, be as straight as possible, and the ribs should spring boldly out and be both well rounded and deep.  When measured across the hips the breadth should be very great, and the quarters should be exceedingly well developed from the hips backwards.  The thighs should also be well developed, and should show great fullness. Viewed generally, the quarters should be square between the hips and the tail, and from between the tail right down to between the hind feet.  The legs, both before and behind, should be short and strong, the bones strong, broad, and straight, the hoofs well set in and large, and the legs well feathered with hair.  The animal should be set wide between the fore-legs, and it should move with great dignity and style, as this is considered to be one of the most reliable evidences of careful and true breeding.

HAIR - The hair, of which there should be a great profusion, more particularly on the parts indicated, should be long and gracefully waved, very much as in what dog-breeders denote wavy-coated retrievers.  To have a curl is to possess a decided fault, and one which has of late years become unfortunately too common in some folds.  This has been attributed in some quarters to a growing desire to make Highlanders grow big from feeding them higher and housing them more.  At any rate, experience goes far to prove that the more exposed they are the greater the profusion of the hair, and the less its tendency to curl.  Thus, the reason of the island cattle being always so much better haired than the mainland cattle is owing to their never being housed in winter.

The usual colours are black, brindled, red, yellow, and dun, and there is considerable difference of opinion among breeders as to which is preferable.

In general, as to colour, it may be said that a good herd should possess a mixture - avoiding always all those which indicate unhealthy thrivers.  The thickness of the skin, as in all fattening breeds, comes in for a considerable amount of attention, but it has to be borne in mind always that the Highlander has been adapted by nature to withstand great exposure.

New Zealand Highland Cattle Society (NZHCS) Breed Standard

The following descriptions constitute the current NZ Breed standard as defined by the New Zealand Highland Cattle Society as at April 2010.

Head and Jaw - The head and jaw of the Highlander should be short, with a wide muzzle.  A wide muzzle is essential to ensure that there is plenty of space to eat and that the animal gets a secure hold on its food.  The bottom teeth should rest firmly on the pad of the upper jaw.  If the lower jaw is over or undershot the animal will not be able to bite or chew sufficient food for its daily needs.

Eye - The eye should be clear and bright and free from disease.  It maybe any colour.  The eyelashes are long and curl upwards. Prospective breeders often look for alertness in the eye of a bull.

Dossan - The dossan is the name for the long hair on the head.  It should cover the eyes.  It may be curly or straight.

Ears - Ears should be well rounded and sit on the head at the “ten to two” position.  Long strands of hair fall from the ear. Animals with ragged edges or pieces missing from the ear may be exhibiting a genetic fault called “Crop Ear” which is specifically discussed under constitution rules, and must be clearly identified on the pedigree of any animal with Crop Ear.

Horns - Horns for a bull should be strong and level on the head.  They grow outward from the head and then curl slightly forward with the tips upward.  Horns for a female are finer than those of a bull.  They should be level with the head and grow outward before turning upwards and then outwards at the tip.  On some cows the tip of the horn will also tip backwards.  All sets of horns should be symmetrical.

New Zealand Highland Cattle Society does not accept for Purebred or Full blood registration any animal that is polled (i.e. has no horns naturally occurring).

Body- Neck and Shoulders - Neck and shoulders should be strong and well proportioned.  The neck should be short and firm, not scrawny. It should curve gently into a neat brisket.  The neck and brisket of the bull will be much thicker and fuller than those of the cow.  The shoulder should not protrude.  It should sit well into the body giving the animal a solid look when viewed from the front.

Belly - The belly should be straight, thus giving the animal a healthy beefy look.

Ribs - The ribs should show plenty of spring thus giving lots of room for the animal’s vital organs (heart, lungs, etc.  This is essential to ensure good growth and a long life.

Hindquarters - The hindquarters should be strong, even and heavy with meat.  It is an area of the animal that carries most of the saleable meat. When we look at the rear of the ideal animal it should be a deep block.  Side view should be deep and rounded.  Both should be heavily muscled.

Tail - The tail head should not protrude from the body.  This leaves the rear of the animal with a square, even look.  The tip of the tail should have plenty of long hair giving it a thick, bushy look.

Legs - The legs should be thick set and straight with good bone and a good covering of hair, and the animal should be seen to be walking freely and easily, the legs not brushing against each other.  The best description is that the legs should sit evenly on the four corners of the animal and should lead down into well set and large hooves.

Feet - The feet are one of the most important features of the animal.  Healthy feet are vital so that the animal can walk to water and feed and so that the bull can mount the cow.  The hoof should be free from cracks and the animal able to walk on the sole of the foot.  There should not be any excessive growth of the hooves.  The observer should be able to see light between the cleats.

Udder - The udder should be firmly attached to the body with the teats placed evenly on the four corners of the udder and of a size that a young calf can suckle.  An uneven udder with one quarter obviously larger than the others may indicate a history of mastitis in that animal.

Testicles - The testicles of the bull should be attached firmly to the body.  Both should be of comparable size but not so long that the bull is in danger of injuring himself by accidentally treading on them as he stands up.  Two cans of beer are a reasonable comparative measure.

Coat - The coat of the Highlander gives the animal its distinctive shaggy look.  There are two coats.  The outer coat is long and strong and keeps the wet weather away from their skin, while the undercoat is soft and almost fluffy to keep their bodies warm.  This undercoat does not grow long to renew the outer coat as each coat is separately renewed.  The hair may be straight or gently curling. In wild weather hair that is too curly will hold the rain and snow to the detriment of the health of the animal. In summer the animal will shed most of its coat.  This is especially so if the cow is in milk.

Colour - The colour of the Highlander should be full colour and may be of any of the six official colours: white, yellow, red, brindle, black and dun.  It is often difficult for the new breeder to identify the colour of a new calf as most calves are red balls of fluff when they are born.

White: Obviously white

Yellow: Ranges from dark cream to light red

Red: Obviously rich red

Brindle: Black stripes on the face, neck and body

Black: Clearly black by 12 months, sometimes dusky black at birth

Dun: Silver through greys and browns to dark grey, nearly black.

Please note that the New Zealand Highland Cattle Society does not accept any parti coloured animals for purebred or full blood registration. White on the belly anywhere from behind the front legs to the udder and a white switch to the tail would be acceptable as they are considered to be consistent with Highland characteristics.

Australian Highland Cattle Society (AHCS) Breed Standard

​February 1994

TYPE - The animal should be of good length, depth and elevation, with neck long enough to give the head a good lift.  The head, horns, neck, body, hindquarters and legs should be in perfect balance.  On the move the Highlander should show plenty of style, character and quality and look as if it is "going places".

HEAD - The head should be proportionate to the body of the animal, and broad between the eyes, while short from the eyes to the point of the muzzle.  The hair between the horns, known as the dossan, should be wide, long - reaching to the muzzle - and thick.  The eyes should be bright and clear.  The muzzle must be broad with large distending nostrils, strong under-jaw with teeth meeting upper pad evenly, (not over or under shot).  The ears should be symmetrical and well formed. No cropping of the ear is allowed.

HORNS - The horns in the bull should be strong, but not too heavy (heavy horns are undesirable), and come out of the head level, curving slightly forward.  Above all, the head and horns of a bull must give the impression of strength and masculinity.

The horns of the cow take a number of different shapes, but in general must be slightly lighter than the bull.  Coming out of the head more or less horizontally, they should not curve downwards too much before rising, and fining down considerably about six inches from the tip and up to the end of the horn denoting femininity.  In the case of both cow and bull the horns should be symmetrical.

NECK - The neck should be of good length, allowing for natural lift to the head.  A bull should show masculinity but this development should not be excessive at an early age.  The throat and neck should be clean-cut without excess skin.  The brisket should not be excessive or too fatty.

UDDER - The udder on females should not be fleshy, coming well forward in line with the body and well up behind; with four teats well apart and of even moderate size.

BODY & HINDQUARTERS - From the shoulder back, the top of the animal should be straight, with no hollows, and as wide as possible - particularly between the hooks, or hips, and should not be too hard, which indicates bone on which no flesh will develop.  It should not narrow over the heart, i.e. behind the shoulders, nor should the shoulders be too prominent.  The body should be long and proportionately long from the hook to the tail end of the spine in relation to good length from shoulder to hook.  It is important that there should be no sloping of the spine from the hooks back to the tail end of the spine, it should be level and the tail set in smoothly to the body, not creating a knob or lump.  The plates on either side of the tail end of the spine should be a good follow through from hooks to pins, the latter being well set up and wide.  The animal must not be flat sided so the ribs need to be well sprung.  The thighs should be well developed and be as full as possible.  Finally, when viewed from the rear, the body should not appear to be split up to any great height by the legs, and the hindquarters should appear fairly square.  When viewed from the side, the body should appear rectangular.

LEGS - The legs should be sturdy and straight with good bone and a good covering of hair, and the animal should be seen to be walking freely and easily, the legs not brushing against each other but set well outside the body.  The four legs should each be placed at a corner of the body, the front ones straight when seen from the front or side and well apart; the back should be as the front, but slightly hooked when seen from the side.  If hooked too much it becomes a 'sickle' hock, which is most undesirable, as are all structural faults.  When viewed from the side of the animal the back of the hock should be in line with the pin bone on the same side.  The legs should lead down into well-set and large even hoofs, and when on the move the hind feet should step into the tracks made by the front feet for perfect traction.

HAIR - Highland cattle have two coats of hair.  The outer coat is long and strong and is presumably meant by nature to keep the winter weather away from the skin.  The under coat is soft and fluffy to keep their bodies warm.  This under coat does not grow long to renew the outer coat, but each coat is separately renewed.  The Australian Highland Cattle Society's official Highland coat colours range from black through brindle, dun, red, yellow, white and parti. No colour is genetically dominant.

SHEATH & SCROTUM - Bulls sheaths should not be loose or pendulous.  The scrotum should contain two testicles well let down of good and even size.


Ennerdale assessed highland cattle over a three year period to gain as much knowledge as possible before establishing the fold - so we know the importance of research. 

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