All About Highland Cows: The Fluffy Cattle

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 15th October 2023

NameHighland CowDietHerbivorous
Scientific nameHielan cooWeight1,100 to 1,800 lbs (500 to 800 kgs)
Pronunciationhi-land kauLength157 to 206 cm (61 to 81 inches)
ClassificationMammalia, Artiodactyla, & BovidaeLocationScotland, USA, Canada, Australia

The Highland Cow

Gage Beasley's Highland Cow Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Highland Cow Stuffed Plush Toy

Highland cows are more than just livestock; they are living testaments to centuries of survival and adaptation in one of the harshest environments on Earth. 

With a lineage that stretches back over a thousand years, these gentle giants have played pivotal roles in the lives of Highland clans, the struggles of a nation, and the collective imagination of people worldwide. 

Highland cows, also known as Highland cattle or “coos” in Scottish dialect, are a breed of cattle that have captivated people worldwide with their unique characteristics and historical significance. 

These shaggy, gentle giants have a story spanning centuries, showcasing their resilience, adaptability, and cultural importance. 

One of the most distinctive features of Highland cows is their long, shaggy hair. 

This thick, coarse coat protects against the harsh weather conditions of the Scottish Highlands, where they originated. 

highland cow
Scottish Highland Cow | LeoPatrizi via Getty Images

The history of Highland cows is deeply intertwined with the history of Scotland itself. 

They are one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world, with a lineage that can be traced back over a thousand years.

Highland cattle also played a pivotal role in the Highland Clearances, a period of great social upheaval in the 18th and 19th centuries when many Scots were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands. 

Some families managed to preserve their cattle, often smuggling them away, and these herds symbolized resilience and cultural identity. 

Highland cows have transcended their agricultural and historical roles to become iconic symbols of Scotland. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Their rugged appearance and association with the untamed Highlands have made them a source of pride for Scots and a symbol of Scottish culture. 

They have also gained popularity worldwide for their unique charm. 

Highland cattle can be found on farms and ranches far from their Scottish homeland, where they continue to captivate people with their endearing appearance and gentle nature. 

Keep reading to discover more about this unique cattle breed.

The Highland Cow Breed

highland cow
Does it get any shaggier than this? | Mark Duffy via Getty Images

Highland cattle boast remarkable physical traits that make them instantly recognizable. 

One of the easiest ways to recognize this cattle breed is by their shaggy coats. 

The most iconic aspect of Highland cows is their long, shaggy, and dense double coat. 

This double coat comprises a thick, coarse outer layer known as the “guard hair” and a soft, insulating undercoat. 

The coat’s colors can vary, encompassing red, black, yellow, brindle, and even silver shades. 

The outermost layer, known as guard hair, is thick, coarse, and longer than the undercoat. 

It serves as a protective barrier against harsh weather conditions, including rain, snow, and biting winds. 

The guard hair can vary in color, encompassing shades of red, black, yellow, brindle, and silver, contributing to the breed’s visual diversity. 

Beneath the guard hair lies the soft and insulating undercoat. 

This layer acts as a thermal regulator, helping Highland cows maintain their body temperature in cold climates. 

highland cow
Portrait of a Scottish Highland cattle in the snow during winter. | Sjo via Getty Images

The undercoat is especially crucial during harsh winters, as it traps warm air close to the skin, providing essential insulation.

Highland cows are primarily found in regions with unpredictable weather, including the rugged Scottish Highlands. 

Their shaggy coat is a natural shield, repelling moisture and wind to keep the cow’s skin dry and comfortable. 

The insulating properties of the undercoat are crucial for maintaining the cow’s body temperature. 

It helps them conserve energy by reducing heat loss in cold weather, ensuring they stay warm even in freezing conditions. 

60% of these cows have the typical coat color, which is a reddish brown; 22% have yellow coats, and the remaining percentage is made up of pale silver or black. 

The MC1R gene (E locus) and the PMEL or SILV gene alleles are responsible for the coat colors (D locus). 

Being a cow that weighs between 1,100 and 1,800 pounds, the Highland cow, unlike most people think, does not need a lot of human intervention to maintain its coat. 

They shed their undercoat during warmer months, reducing their thickness and insulation properties. 

However, the guard hair remains relatively consistent throughout the year. 

highland cow
Look at the size of those horns! | chrisdorney via Getty Images

This adaptability allows them to maintain their coat’s health and cleanliness independently. 

Another identifying feature of Highland cows is their horns. 

What is remarkable is that both males (bulls) and females (cows) have horns, although the shape and size can vary between individuals, indicating some level of sexual dimorphism. 

Adding to their distinctive charm, Highland cattle often have a tuft of hair that falls over their eyes, affectionately referred to as bangs. 

This feature contributes to their wild and rugged appearance. 

In addition, these cows have a robust, stocky build that equips them to withstand harsh climates and challenging landscapes. 

Highland cows also possess relatively short legs in proportion to their bodies, which aids in navigating the rugged and hilly terrain of their native habitat. 

Their hooves are hard and well-suited for traversing muddy or rocky terrain. 

This adaptation further enhances their ability to thrive in rugged environments.

The History of Highland Cows

highland cow
Highland cow in Isle of Skye in Scotland | Marta Ortiz via Getty Images

Highland cows, often affectionately referred to as “Heilan coos” in Scotland, hail from the rugged and remote regions of the Scottish Highlands. 

The exact origins of this breed are somewhat shrouded in history, but it is believed that they have existed in Scotland for several centuries. 

Early records of these cattle date back to the 6th century when they were mentioned in ancient texts as a valuable and hardy livestock breed. 

Highland cows have served various purposes in Scotland’s rural economy throughout their history. 

Beyond their practical uses, Highland cows have played a significant role in Scottish culture and folklore. 

They are often seen as symbols of Scotland and are closely associated with the country’s wild and untamed landscapes. 

Their distinctive appearance has made them popular subjects for artists, photographers, and tourists visiting Scotland.

Highland Cows in Their Natural Habitat

Originally, Highland cows were native to the rugged and picturesque Scottish Highlands. 

This region, characterized by its rolling hills, lush green pastures, and harsh weather conditions, provides the ideal environment for these hardy cattle. 

The Scottish Highlands offer the perfect blend of climate and terrain for Highland Cows. 

The cool, damp climate with abundant rainfall ensures ample grazing for these cattle. 

Their thick, double-layered coat acts as insulation, keeping them warm during the cold winters and protecting them from the wet weather. 

Highland Cow
Scottish Highlands | Jonathan Paul Hunt via Getty Images

While Highland cows are most closely associated with Scotland, their popularity has spread far beyond the borders of the Highlands. 

These hardy cattle can now be found in various regions worldwide, thanks to their adaptability to different climates. 

They have been introduced to countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. 

Highland cows often serve practical and aesthetic purposes in these new regions. 

Farmers appreciate their robustness and meat quality, while their unique appearance makes them a favorite in zoos and for eco-friendly landscaping.

What Are Highland Cows Used For?

highland cow
Scottish highland cow with distinctive thick shaggy coat and horns in the mountains of Argyll | JonnyJim via Getty Images

One of the primary uses of Highland cows is for beef production. 

These cattle are renowned for their lean and flavorful meat. 

Their unique genetics and slow growth rate result in well-marbled and tender beef. 

The Highland cow’s ability to efficiently convert forage into meat makes them popular among farmers prioritizing high-quality beef.

Highland cows can graze on rough, hilly terrain where other cattle breeds might struggle. 

This grazing capability makes them valuable tools in conservation efforts. 

highland cow
Highland Cows grazing in a lush meadow | Frederick Bishop via Getty Images

Many natural reserves and conservation areas employ Highland cattle to help maintain the ecological balance of these landscapes

By grazing on invasive plants and promoting biodiversity, Highland cows play a vital role in preserving delicate ecosystems. 

While not as common as other uses, some Highland cows are raised for their wool. 

Their shaggy coats can be sheared, and the wool can be used in crafting textiles and traditional Scottish garments such as kilts and blankets. 

Although this use is less widespread, it adds to the versatility of these animals.

Highland Cows in Farming and Agriculture

highland cow
The highland cows grazing on pastures | aislan13 via Getty Images

Highland cows have several advantages when integrated into farming and agriculture. 

Their hardy nature reduces the need for intensive care and shelter. 

They are known to graze on rough pastures that other breeds may avoid. 

Highland cattle are also used in conservation grazing programs to maintain and restore natural habitats, as their grazing patterns mimic those of wild herbivores. 

These cattle are also excellent grazers, helping landowners manage overgrown vegetation promoting biodiversity and healthier pastures. 

highland cow
Even the young cattle are helping! | DavorLovincic via Getty Images

By preventing overgrowth and promoting diverse plant species, these cattle contribute to healthier ecosystems on the farm. 

Unlike many other cattle species, Highland cattle have a low impact on the environment, and coupled with their ability to graze on marginal land, they align well with sustainable and eco-friendly farming practices. 

Their natural resistance to diseases and parasites often reduces the need for chemical interventions. 

Highland beef and dairy products also cater to consumers prioritizing locally sourced, high-quality, and ethically raised food products.

Are Highland Cows Friendly?

highland cow
Hello, friends! | 4FR via Getty Images

Highland cows are often portrayed as gentle giants, peacefully grazing in the Scottish countryside. 

However, like all animals, their behavior can vary depending on individual temperament, upbringing, and circumstances. 

Highland cows are naturally cautious animals, which can be mistaken for aloofness. 

When approached by humans, they may initially keep their distance. 

Highland cows raised on farms with regular human contact tend to be more accustomed to human presence and may exhibit friendlier behavior. 

They can be curious and may approach visitors if they feel comfortable. 

highland cow
Highland cows with a farmer | ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images

Just like humans, cows have unique personalities. 

Some may be naturally more outgoing, while others are more introverted. 

Cows that are handled regularly from a young age and positively interact with humans tend to be more friendly. 

On the other hand, Highland cows kept in isolation or without exposure to other cattle and humans may exhibit more reserved behavior. 

Socialization plays a significant role in their temperament.

What Do Highland Cows Eat?

highland cow
This beautiful Highland Cow knew when to stick his tongue out. | Leila Coker via Getty Images

Highland cows are herbivores like all cattle, which means they primarily consume plant-based foods. 

Their digestive systems are specially adapted to break down fibrous plant material, making them well-suited for foraging in the Highland landscapes. 

Grasses form the foundation of a Highland cow’s diet

These cattle are skilled grazers, capable of efficiently harvesting the nutritious grasses that thrive in their native environment. 

They use their strong, muscular tongues to grasp and tear the grasses, fermented and digested in their complex stomachs. 

highland cow
The tongue of the highland cow | Matauw via Getty Images

In addition to grasses, Highland cows also consume a variety of heathers, shrubs, and low-growing vegetation. 

They are adapted to nibble on various plant species, making the most of the diverse vegetation available in the Highland regions. 

Highland cows require access to clean and fresh water like all living creatures. 

They drink from streams, rivers, and other natural water sources in the Highlands. 

Adequate hydration is crucial for their overall health and proper digestion.

Highland Cattle Calves

Highland Cow
Highland cow with its cattle | northlightimages via Getty Images

Like other cattle, young Highland cows are called calves. 

The gestation period lasts around 277–290 days, and mating happens throughout the year. 

Although twins are not uncommon, a single calf is often born. 

When the time comes, these robust mothers give birth to their adorable calves. 

The newborns are usually small, weighing around 40-50 pounds (18-23 kilograms) at birth, and covered in soft, curly reddish-brown or black fur. 

Highland cattle calves are typically left to graze with their mothers in the rugged Highland terrain. 

The cows are protective and keep a watchful eye on their offspring. 

Calves primarily feed on their mother’s milk for the first few months, transitioning to grazing as they grow older. 

At around eighteen months, a calf reaches sexual maturity. 

The highland cattle have an estimated lifetime of 20 years compared to most other cattle breeds.

Highland Cows as Pets

Highland Cow
Highland cows in a farm | ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images

Before bringing a Highland cow into your life as a pet, there are several important considerations to remember. 

Firstly, these cows are relatively large and require ample space to graze and roam. 

A small backyard is not suitable for these cattle. 

While Highland cows are known for their ability to graze on rough terrain, they still require a balanced diet. 

Proper nutrition is essential for their health, so consult a veterinarian or livestock specialist to create a suitable feeding plan. 

Highland cows are social animals and thrive in the company of other cattle. 

Consider having at least two Highland cows to prevent loneliness and stress. 

Also, it is important to check with local authorities and zoning regulations to ensure that keeping Highland cows is permitted in your area. 

Some places may have restrictions on livestock ownership.

Highland Cows in Pop Culture

Title page of 1811 edition with engraving by John Pye based on Richard Westall’s design | Photo via Walter Scott Image Collection

Title page of 1811 edition with engraving by John Pye based on Richard Westall‘s design

Highland cows have appeared in numerous works of literature over the years, often serving as a symbol of the Scottish countryside and its unique culture. 

One of the most famous literary references to Highland cattle can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem “The Lady of the Lake,” where they are described as part of the scenic beauty of the Highlands. 

In contemporary literature, they inspire authors who seek to capture the spirit of Scotland’s wild landscapes. 

The Monarch of the Glen, 1851: the image was widely distributed in steel engravings. Now in the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. | Edwin Landseer via National Galleries Scotland

Renowned artists like Sir Edwin Landseer, a 19th-century British painter, created iconic works featuring Highland cattle, including “The Monarch of the Glen,” which remains a symbolic representation of Scotland. 

The image of a Highland cow has been used in various advertising campaigns to evoke feelings of tradition, authenticity, and a connection to nature. 

Highland cows have also found their way into the world of merchandise. 

Their image adorns a wide range of products, from plush toys and decorative items to clothing and accessories. 

Fans of these cattle can proudly display their affection for these animals in various aspects of their daily lives.

Highland Cows’ Economic Value

Highland Cow
Surprise, they indeed have eyes! | Smyk_ via Getty Images

Highland cattle are primarily raised for their meat, renowned for its exceptional quality and flavor. 

The unique composition of their beef, characterized by its leanness and well-marbled texture, makes it highly sought after by chefs and consumers alike. 

The demand for Highland beef has led to premium pricing in both local and international markets, contributing significantly to the income of cattle farmers. 

Highland cattle breeding has also become a profitable enterprise for many farmers. 

Highland cows’ unique appearance and genetic traits make them valuable in breeding programs, producing both purebred Highland cattle and crossbred offspring. 

These cattle are often sold at premium prices to other farmers looking to incorporate the breed into their herds. 

The price of Highland Cows can vary widely based on age, gender, pedigree, health, demand, and location

However, their true value extends beyond their price tag. 

The increasing demand for organic and niche market products has opened up new opportunities for Highland cattle farmers. 

Their traditional and extensive grazing practices align with organic farming principles, making their products appealing to health-conscious and environmentally-conscious consumers.


Highland Cows are not just a breed of cattle; they are living symbols of Scotland’s rugged landscapes, history, and cultural significance. 

With their iconic shaggy coats, distinctive appearance, and adaptability to harsh environments, they have captured people’s hearts worldwide. 

These gentle giants have a rich history intertwined with Scotland’s heritage, playing roles in both practical agriculture and as cultural icons. 

They serve diverse purposes, from providing high-quality beef to contributing to conservation efforts and appearing in literature and art. 

Highland Cows embody resilience, adaptability, and a unique charm that transcends their economic value, making them beloved and enduring symbols of Scotland and its untamed beauty.


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