Posts Tagged ‘Highland cattle’

I have a little pet hypothesis on Scottish cattle. It is a bit controversial, and it may require some imagination to see what I’m saying.

My hypothesis is this: Highland and Aberdeen-Angus cattle are derived from the same root stock, but both experienced different selection pressures to produce very different phenotypes.

The only thing these cattle have in common now is color. Aberdeen-Angus come in black and red, and so do most Highland cattle. The Highland breed is derived from two root stocks, one of which was red and the other black. That is the same distinction in Aberdeen-Angus, which is greatly magnified in the North American registries. (There are some rare brindles in Highland cattle, but they are not a significant part of the breed.)

Besides color, the two breeds are quite different in every way. Aberdeen-Angus are naturally polled, and Highland cattle are quite long-horned. Aberdeen-Angus have extensive marbling in their meat, which is one reason why the are in such demand these days. Highland cattle are known for having low fat content in their meat.

But I think all of these differences result form different selection pressures that were put upon these cattle. In my analogy, the Highland cattle are like wolves, which evolved to live independently of man in a very harsh environment, and the Aberdeen-Angus are like an improved breed of domestic dog that is meant to be kept as a cherished family pet, like the modern Newfoundland dog.

The Highland cattle lived much as Texas longhorns did. They were given total free range in very wild country, and they had to contend with predation from wolves, which ran about the Highlands until the eighteenth century. They also had to deal with heavy snows, which prevented easy access to good grazing. These cattle had to be able to defend themselves from predators and defend their own access to feeding grounds. So they needed horns.

In fact, the history of this breed is so ancient that it may have not evolved much from the European aurochsen from which all cattle descend. These animals calved naturally for a very simple reason. They were calving in the wild at a great distance from both the crofters who tended them and the nearest veterinarians. If a cow couldn’t give birth properly, she died, as did her calf, which is a very effective culling mechanism.

The Highland cattle were also not kept in byres, the Scots word for a “cattle barn.” These animals had to live in a frigid, snowy country, and with no barn to protect them, they had to grow their own barn. They evolved this very yak-like pelt that keeps the warm in the worst of conditions.

When I first saw a Highland cow as a boy, I mistook it for a yak, which is an entirely different species of cow. The Highland cattle are just modified taurine cattle, while the yak represents a species native to the Himalayans.

Highland cattle have lived in their mountainous habitat for centuries. They are still domesticated enough to be quite docile animals, but cows are quite protective of their calves. If a cow couldn’t protect her calf, the wolves would surely have it. So there has been a selection pressure towards good mothering instincts.

Now, in the Lowlands of Scotland, very different selection pressures were in existence.

Aberdeenshire and Angus are not in the Highlands, but they aren’t very far from them.

They are historic counties within the Scottish Lowlands, where the culture was heavily influenced by English notions of livestock improvement.

Cows of the Aberdeen-Angus type are quite old, but the actual Aberdeen-Angus breed developed in the nineteenth century. The Lowland farmers of that region produced polled cattle that were called Angus doddies. They were kept in barns and grazed on smaller pastures.  Because they lacked horns, they were easier to keep as oxen or to keep as beef cattle at relatively high densities.

As the Aberdeen-Angus breed began to improve, it was selected for more fat in the meat. The fat was suppose to marble the muscle, making the flesh more tender.

The Highland cattle living in the mountains grew a thick coat to protect themselves from the elements. They  had no real need for a particular layer of fat to insulate them, and as a result, their flesh remained relatively low in fat content.

The Angus doddie landrace and the Highland breed may have continued to exchange genes after the separation, which is why their coat colors are so similar.

However, the modern Aberdeen-Angus cattle were largely founded by a breeder named Hugh Watson, who used all of the Bakewell-style breeding methods to improve his stock. Virtually all Aberdeen-Angus trace their ancestry to two cattle in Watson’s herd, Old Jock and Old Granny.

Highland cattle are an unimproved breed, although they do have some characteristics that some beef producers might like, such as their ease in calving and low fat flesh.

I do not know of any genetic studies that have examined the relationship between Aberdeen-Angus and Highland cattle. The animals are not very similar in their traits or conformation, and very few genetic studies have been performed on cattle.

But they come in essentially the same colors and come from regions that are adjacent to each other.

That alone should lead someone to wonder whether there is a relationship between these two cattle breeds.

However, I don’t know of any genetic studies that have examined this possibility.

If there is no relationship, we can still say that the Aberdeen-Angus was derived from an animal that is very similar to the Highland breed. The aurochs of yore was much larger than a Highland bull and far less shaggy. It also had larger horns.

Although it is now extinct, the recreated aurochs, the Heck cattle, do have some Highland cattle ancestry.

But I still think that Highland cattle and Aberdeen-Angus have a relationship.

Only genetic studies can falsify or prove the hypothesis.

But the study just hasn’t been performed yet.





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Highland cattle are shaggy because they have evolved to live in the Scottish Highlands without access to barns. The animals have developed thick, shaggy coats, and horns that can be used to fight off other cattle when foraging heavy snow.

These cattle have very low fat content, especially compared to the improved breeds, like the Aberdeen-Angus (“Black Angus” and “Red Angus” in the US). That shaggy hair acts as insulation, which allows the cattle to develop less fatty meat.

Of course, shaggy little Highland calves are cute, but all calves are.  I have watched the neighbors’ black Angus calves play on the adjacent ridge. They play as hard as any dogs.

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As I have said before, I think the golden retriever always had a bit more coat than other strains of wavy/flat-coat because it was developed from dogs that lived in the Scottish highlands. That’s one of the reasons why the golden dumps so much hair during shedding season. However, in a functional retriever, the goal is find some balance between the protective coat and streamlining the body for the water or reducing the chances for the coat to collect brambles and burrs.

However, goldens are just one of several animals from Northern Scotland that have developed longer than normal hair. The Highland cattle, which have been in Scotland for far longer than golden retriever. In fact, they may have been in Scotland before the arrival of the Middle English dialects that would evolve into the Scots language.

These cattle evolved in rainy, cold Western Highlands as largely free range animals. These were not cattle that had access to the byres (a cow barn for you non- Scots speakers). Instead, it evolved this very thick coat and great big horns to fight off the wolves, which were common in Scotland well into the eighteenth century. (I remember reading that the Jacobites, who rose against the English crown, probably would have seen a wolf, but they probably would have never seen a rabbit, because European rabbits hadn’t colonized the Highlands.)

This animal is not entirely removed from the ancient Aurochs, the ancestral cattle of Eurasia, but this breed has also developed something of the bison’s coat. Like the bison, Highland cattle have very low fat content to their flesh.

What I also find interesting about them is that they come in roughly the same colors as the native cattle of the Scottish lowlands, which have a much broader distribution as beef produces. I am talking about the breed called the Aberdeen-Angus, which comes in red and black colorations. In the US cattle registry system, the breed is split into two breeds called the Red Angus and the Black Angus.

These are cattle for the byres. They are also from a lowland region in the eastern part of Scotland, where the weather is a little nicer. As a result, they didn’t develop the coat of the Highland cattle, but they did develop lovely marbled flesh. This is my favorite breed to eat.

Now, I don’t know whether any connection exists between the Highland cattle and the Lowland Aberdeen-Angus breed. However, they come in roughly the same colors. Their meat and musculature is quite distinct, as well as the obvious coat differences. Most Highland cattle have horns, while all Aberdeen-Angus are polled. But the fact that the evolved in relatively proximate areas does have my curiosity piqued. Is it possible that they have a common ancestor that was later bred for the different market and weather conditions in their respective regions?

I don’t know.

However, I do know that the red color in the Aberdeen-Angus is associated with a crossbreeding with now rare English longhorn cattle, an “improved” creation of Robert Bakewell, the first agriculturist to develop intensive selective breeding for livestock to increase production.

However, those two theories are not mutually exclusive. The English longhorn was brought in as an outcross, because the herds of Aberdeen-Angus type “doddies” were small.  Bakewell had increased the size of his cattle, and these animals were providing much larger beeves than the unimproved breeds of cattle. So why wouldn’t they cross the big ones in?

Keep in mind that the main person who standardized the Aberdeen-Angus was a man named Hugh Watson, who organized the breed from a landrace to a true breed in the early 1820’s. His main bull was “Grey-breasted Jock,” which tells you that the color varied a little bit.

However, I think that the Highland and Lowland Aberdeen-Angus are descended from a common ancestor that was black or red in color that later evolved into a different animal depending upon environmental conditions and market forces.

Now, if someone can provide me evidence that these two breeds couldn’t possibly be related, please send it my way. But  it does seem to me that the similarities in the two breeds in terms of color seems to me more than coincidental.

Oh, and in Scots, a cow is a “coo” or a “cou.” If you have more than one, then they are “kye.”

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