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The breed was developed in the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland. Breeding stock has been exported to the rest of the world, especially Australia and North America, since the early 20th Century. The breed was developed from two sets of stock, one originally black, and the other reddish. Although there are several coat colors in existence since the late 1800s, most are caused by alleles at the MC1R gene (E locus) and the PMEL or SILV gene (D locus).
Highlands are known as a hardy breed due to the rugged nature of their native Scottish Highlands, with high rainfall and very strong winds. Highland cattle have been successfully established in many temperate countries and indeed in countries where winters are substantially colder than Scotland's such as in central Europe and Canada. Their hair gives protection during the cold winters and their skill in looking for food allows them to survive in steep mountain areas. They both graze and browse and eat plants which many other cattle avoid.
The meat tends to be leaner than most beef because Highlands get most of their insulation from their thick shaggy hair rather than subcutaneous fat. The coat makes them a good breed for cold northern climates and they are able to thrive in outdoor conditions that would defeat most other breeds of domestic beef cattle. As such, Highland cattle are able to produce beef at a reasonable gross margin from inhospitable land that would otherwise normally be incapable of rendering a profit agriculturally. Whilst the UK domestic and worldwide popularity of Highland cattle has made trade in pedigree beasts occasionally the most lucrative - mainly on account of their handsome appearance - they are at their best agriculturally when used to produce beef in a cold climate from poor pasture and forage.
Whilst the muscle of pure-bred Highland cattle is exceptionally tender and of high flavour, modern butchery and shopping trends tend to demand a carcass and a cut of meat of a different character. In order to address this market, Highland beef producers commonly run commercial Highland suckler cows with a 'terminal' sire such as a Shorthorn or Limousin bull. This allows the hardy Highland cow, grazed upon the rough hillsides of her natural environment, to produce a cross-bred beef calf featuring the tender beef of its mother on a more modern carcass of high commercial value at slaughter, thus rendering a gross margin from her grazing that would have been impossible from other breeds in that environment. There is also a healthy demand from fellow producers of outdoor-reared beef who farm on more forgiving terrain, for Highland cross-bred bulling heifers: most often Highland cows crossed with the Shorthorn bull, for use as suckler cows. These cross-bred beef suckler cows inherit the hardiness, thrift and mothering capabilities of their Highland dams and the improved carcass configuration of their sires. Such cross-bred sucklers, further crossed with a modern beef bull such as a Limousin or Charolais to produce the finest quality beef are one of the mainstays of Scottish commercial beef production. It is this ability to pass on thrift and gross margin down the beef-breeding cascade that has secured this breed's place as a modern commercial beef breed.
The Highland cattle registry ("herd book") was established in 1885. Although groups of cattle are generally called herds, a group of Highlands is known as a fold. They were also known as kyloes in Scots.
For show purposes highland cattle are sometimes groomed with oils and conditioners to give their coats a fluffy appearance. This appearance is more apparent in calves leading some outside the industry to call them fluffy cows.
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