Hebridean Sheep and Highland Cattle
Hebridean Sheep are a distinct particular breed of sheep whose characteristics have been derived from their ancestors - traceable right back to the Iron age.
Highland cattle have long horns and a wavy coat and the breeding stock is transported all round the world, especially Australia and North America
The Hebrides or Western isles as they are called are fortunate to be the home of several distinct breeds of sheep and indeed of Highland Cattle too.
Apart from the interesting history that goes with the sheep and cattle seen on The Islands, the animals themselves are a splendid sight, set in the beautiful surroundings!
Highland Cattle - Western Isles
The highland breed of cattle has a long and distinguished ancestry, not only in its homeland of western Scotland, but also in many far-flung parts of the world. One of Britain's oldest, most distinctive, and best known breeds, with a long, thick, flowing coat of rich hair and majestic sweeping horns, the Highlander has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.
Highland Cattle Exported to Australia and North America
The Highland Cattle 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 in recent years. The breed was developed from two sets of stock, one originally black, and the other reddish. Highland cattle have a long, thick, flowing coat of rich hair and majestic sweeping horns, the Highlander has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.
The Hair - Coat of the Highland Cattle
The double coat of hair (long, course, outer layer and soft wooly inner layer) is one of the most notable differences between Highlands and all other breeds. The coat reduces the need for expensive barns and shelters. Highland Cattle are therefore so well insulated that they are really hardy
Highland Cattle - The Meat
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 The Western Isles as they are able to thrive in outdoor conditions that would defeat most other breeds of domestic beef cattle.
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.
Our Iron Age ancestors were farmers, and among their livestock they kept sheep. Archaeological digs have shown that these early northern domestic sheep were smaller than the modern commercial sheep seen grazing in our fields today.
They had short tails and many were horned – even multi horned. These little sheep were been hardy and could withstand the poor conditions and had adapted to the climate of Britain.
These wild sheep were not woolly in the way we associate with sheep today, but had a hair coat with a short warm undercoat which could be shorn or plucked. It is these sheep which the Hebridean sheep of today trace heir ancestry.
The fact that they now have wool rather than hair is simply down to the fact that this characteristic has been bred in over the years.
Gradually the agricultural revolution of the period, and the development of new breeds of sheep and also the clearances meant thant the Dunface sheep were pushed even further to the rocky outlying areas of North and West Britain.
Blackface & Cheviots - Clearances Take an Impact
With government and landowners' support, the sheep were replaced by 'improved' long-tailed breeds such as the Blackface and Cheviot.
By early in the twentieth century, these little sheep, which had been present in the region for thousands of years, had all but disappeared.
The black colouration in Hebridean sheep is a recessive characteristic, so once black sheep had been selected, all their future lambs would also be black, or occasionally brown.
Royal Family have Highland Cattle at Balmoral
The British Royal family maintains a fold of Highland Cattle at Balmorals Castle. Highland cattle are the oldest registered breed of cattle with a Herd Book being published in 1885, though it is known that Highland Cattle probably grazed in Scotland as far back as the 6th century.
Originating in Scotland or Imported by the Vikings?
It is still a matter of debate as to whether they were an origin of Scotland or imported from Scandinavia perhaps with the Vikings when they invaded Great Britain.
Hebridean sheep a Favourite - Black Sheep
The people of the Western Isles have always favoured black sheep. This is probably not just cosmetic. Black horned feet are harder, grow more slowly and are more resistant to rot. The black Hebridean sheep are therfore well suited for the boggy, peaty conditions of The Hebrides
Rare Breeds Survival Trust
In 1973 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified Hebridean sheep as a breed in danger of extinction. Only a few flocks remained in West Scotland. Fortunately, these flocks had been virtually wild, with little if any management, and so the characteristics of the sheep had probably changed very little since their arrival.
Since then the Hebridean Black Sheep Breed has been revived, and it is no longer regarded as rare; it is kept in many parts of the world, now including its native Hebrides.
Modern Hebridean sheep have black, rather coarse wool, fading to brown in the sun and often becomes grey with age. There is no wool on the face or legs. If not shorn the wool may moult naturally in spring. Hebridean sheep were originally mostly a four-horned breed. Over the years, two-horned sheep have come to dominate the breed to the extent that about 95% are now two-horned.