It’s the high road for Niagara cattle farmer as rare Scottish breed enjoys new popularity amid pandemic

Highland cows, Breeze (L), Gremlin (C) and Honour (R), are photographed at Gryphon Ridge Highlands in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021. Jordan Snobelen/Metroland

Kim McQuhae of Gryphon Ridge Highlands is a rare breed among Niagara’s farmers. 

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, on 10 acres of land sandwiched between lucrative  vineyards, McQuhae is breeding hardy, rustic bulls and cows hailing from  the Scottish Highlands. 

Known  as gentle giants for their demeanour and girth, the Highlanders stand  out against a white snowy background with their lengthy horns and burly,  brown coats.

Kim McQuhae is photographed at her farm, Gryphon Ridge Highlands, in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021.

On a good year, McQuhae makes three trips south of the border: one in  January to the National Western Stock Show in Colorado; another in the  springtime to The Big E in Massachusetts; and finally to the New York  State Fair, rounding out the year in August. 

The  shows are an opportunity to show off her bulls for coveted awards, to  make business connections, and to look for heifers to diversify her  shaggy clan’s genetic pool further north.

Highland cattle are photographed at Gryphon Ridge Highlands in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021.

But  with no shows left in the province for Highland cattle, and travel  across the Canada-US border restricted to essential business, McQuhae  has been limited in her options. 

Like many modern farmers, McQuhae brings in off-farm income to pay the  bills. Along with keeping an eye on her cattle, around 60 laying hens,  and Wilbur the pig — a grumpy rescue that “runs the neighbourhood” —  she’s also a cable technician and a server. 

And like many other non-farmers, her work has been slowed with the coronavirus, leaving her heifers as her main income source. 

Elsa, a Highland cow, is seen at Gryphon Ridge Highlands in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021.

Last year, McQuhae tried selling a couple yearlings but had no bites.

The cattle, however, kept munching away on thousands of dollars worth of hay.  

Like a good omen, at the beginning of this year, McQuhae’s luck turned. 

“It’s weird, things have sort of flipped in the last year,” she said. 

She took to Facebook, posting ads for a bull and two freshly weaned calves this past January.

“Literally within 24 hours, all three were sold,” she said.

The tip of a Highland cow’s horn is pictured at Gryphon Ridge Highlands in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021. The horns contain blood vessels and are warm to the touch.

She’s now down to five heifers and three bulls, including her four year-old  breeding bull, Epic Echo, the son of her late and beloved 17 year-old  bull, Bucky, whose portrait appears on McQuhae’s many jam and preserve labels. 

“He was an amazing bull; he and I had a bond from the beginning,” she said. 

In 2016, two months after Bucky passed away, Sunset Gaelic Annan gave  birth to Epic Echo, right on Bucky’s grave during a snowstorm. 

The hooves of a Highland cow are photographed while covered in snow at Gryphon Ridge Highlands in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021.

Since  1998, when McQuhae purchased the land for her first two heifers, over  80 cows have come and gone from Gryphon Ridge Highlands. Some have been  sold within Niagara, but most make their way out of the region. 

McQuhae  isn’t sure why there’s been an uptick in interest for the Highlanders —  she’s heard of similar stories from breeders elsewhere and has a list  of names wanting to buy from her — but says it could be because they’re  easier to keep and less picky than other breeds. 

As soon as they’re ready, Honour the bull and Humbug the heifer will be up for sale next.

Though  showing her breeds is expensive and time consuming, McQuhae is looking  forward to her next trip south where she’ll get her name back out there,  and maybe add a few more award ribbons to her collection. 

Kim McQuhae’s many awards won for her Highland cattle are displayed in her living room in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Feb. 18, 2021.