Can Scotland Save Its Hairy Highland Cows?

February 22nd, 2024
Can Scotland Save Its Hairy Highland Cows?

I first encountered a Highland Cow in a lonely field in Orkney - and my first thought was, “Oh, hello. What are YOU doing here?”

He wasn’t the only cow in sight, but Doug (a name I gave him after a guy I knew at school with very long hair) was the only cow who looked like that. You could see him from a mile away: the only splash of bright orange in a rolling landscape of greens, yellows and browns.

Meet the Highland Cow: a lonely wanderer in Orkney's green expanse.

Meet the Highland Cow: a lonely wanderer in Orkney's green expanse

This is pretty indicative of Dougs in the rest of Scotland. The Highland Cow (in Scots it’s heilan’ coo, believe it or not) has a conservation status of endangered in its motherland, with just 3,161 cows registered for breeding in 2021. Worldwide, it’s a much rosier picture: populations of them have successfully been exported to Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, the United States and Canada (first introduced to Manitoba and Nova Scotia in the 1880s.) 

Nevertheless, seeing one here is a special event - which is why I’ve walked for an hour out of Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, because of a tip-off from someone in the hostel I’m staying in, just to find this particular cow in this particular field.

It’s a stormy, blowy sort of day, with rain that arrives with little warning and clears up suddenly like someone’s flipped a switch. A breezy mid-September day in Orkney, full of the promise of winter gales and rainstorms to come, and I’m defended against it with a warm waterproof jacket. The black, short-haired Aberdeen-Angus cows I passed while walking here looked less protected - stoically enduring the weather, rather than fully built for it. But Doug? It’s immediately obvious Doug could do this weather all year. Absolutely born for this.      

You probably already know what Highland cows look like. Scottish tourism marketing is rightly obsessed with them. They’re the ones with the fetching mop of straggly hair over their eyes (called a “dossan”) which make them simultaneously cute, inscrutable and a bit intimidating - the latter enhanced by their enormous horns, far bigger than other British cow breeds and even approaching the size of Texas Longhorns. But while Highland Cows look formidable, they have an unusually gentle and placid temperament. You really shouldn’t mess around with any wild animal with horns like that, but you’re unlikely to get into trouble if you find yourself on the wrong end of the fence. 

Doug, the one-of-a-kind Highland Cow with a distinctive 'dossan'

Doug, the one-of-a-kind Highland Cow with a distinctive 'dossan'

(Lacking natural predators, the cows only used those horns for foraging and digging, and not for goring tourists - but if you see any newborn calves nearby, do take extra care.)

And oh, that coat. So thick and shaggy. What a glory it is. It’s also a marvel of natural engineering - a dense, tousled outer layer (the longest of any breed of cattle) that’s slightly oily, so most of the rain slides right off it, and a much more fleece-like inner layer against the cow’s skin, to keep it warm. It’s a breed of cow that has mastered the outdoorsy art of layering, and it means it’s almost as cold-resistant as reindeer or Arctic caribou - which is why you can even find some of them thriving in the Andes.  

So yes, they’re tough, but in a calm, stoic sort of way - and when their owners give their coats a groom with oils and conditioners to keep them in good working order (or just for showing purposes at breeder events), they turn into enormous, 800kg bundles of fluff.

If there was any justice in the world, they’d be everywhere in Scotland. Go back a few centuries and this was much the case - with written records as far back as the 12th Century, and archaeological evidence of their use in the Outer Hebrides in the thousand years running up to that, at once time these were Scotland’s most prized cattle. 

It’s worth remembering that in centuries past, cattle was a primary measure of wealth and cattle-rearing was really big business: at one such market in the early 18th Century, over £30,000 changed hands - roughly £3 million / $3.8 million in today’s money. (An interesting note on language: it’s possible the popular phrase “in droves” comes from the practice of moving cattle to markets along tracks through the Highlands that carried the same name.)

For this reason, cattle thieving was equally popular, especially under the guise of local warfare, and many large herds - known as “folds” - were protected by guards. If their cattle was stolen, farmers could pay a band of watchmen to track them down and return them.

(In a sign of the shifting nature of professions and fortunes at the time, the famous Rob Roy - memorably played by Liam Neeson in a film of the same name - was at various times a cattle dealer, a cattle-retrieving watchman and a cattle thief.)

At my first glance he looked a bit out of place, but now it seems that Doug looks quite happy all alone in his field - and that’s probably the only way his owner can affordably feed him, since Highland Cows get through, on average, a staggering 70kg of grass per day. But they also have the cow equivalent of cast-iron stomachs, able to eat plants poisonous to other breeds (including, incredibly, the extremely toxic poison ivy) and even trees, if they’re low enough for them to strip.

Conservation in action: Highland Cows preserving historic landscape

Conservation in action: Highland Cows preserving historic landscape

Because of this, 19 Highland and Shetland Cows were released onto the famous historic battlefield of Culloden in 2015. Their ongoing mission: to nibble away the saplings, heather, and scrub that would otherwise rapidly smother the site, so there’s no need to resort to using costly and toxic herbicides & pesticides to do the same job.

So why aren’t there more Dougs in Scotland? The economics of cattle-breeding, mostly: it’s more expensive to use them for beef production (especially since the loss of subsidies after the UK left the EU), so Highland Cow beef is marketed as a premium product with a lower demand. But there are organisations trying to change this - chiefly the Highland Cattle Society, with its sights “aimed at commercial production, and attracting prospective producers who are focused on making a profit.” Fingers crossed they make headway. 

Could Scotland’s most famous cow make a big comeback? It seems an injustice that it’s thriving everywhere except the country it originated in - and it’d be a disaster to let those numbers dwindle to nothing, when it’s such a cornerstone of Scottish tourism and one of the first things a visitor will want to seek out.

But for now, like Doug on his Orkney hill, these magnificent, shaggy beasts are few and far between, and you may have to do a bit of searching. Keep an eye out if you’re on the train, or driving through the Highlands. The sight of one might make your whole trip. 

(But here’s a top tip: if you want a guaranteed Heilan’ Coo sighting, get yourself to Glasgow’s Pollock Park on a sunny day.) 

Visit Glasgow's Pollok Park and you'll likely come across Highland cows basking in the sun

Visit Glasgow's Pollok Park and you'll likely come across Highland cows basking in the sun

Join Wheel and Anchor in Scotland in September, as we shall cruise aboard our privately chartered ship barely squeaking through the locks as we venture through the heart of the Scottish Highlands. Our trip culminates with an optional extension to the Isle of Skye and the spectacular West Highland Railway back to Glasgow. All the details are here.

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