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Saturday 22 September 2018

Why 13,000 people gather in this Swiss town every year to welcome cattle down from the mountains

Jim O’Brien travels to Switzerland and Clare to witness to age-old winterage traditions

Swiss cattle come down from the mountain for their winter grazing, amid plenty of fanfare
Swiss cattle come down from the mountain for their winter grazing, amid plenty of fanfare

It's a long, long way from the Burren in Clare to Entlebuch in central Switzerland.

Clime and time have seen farming develop differently in the Alps and the Atlantic seaboard, but what both regions have in common is a seasonal, almost ritual movement of stock ahead of the winter - albeit it in different directions.

Farmers in the Alpine environs of Entlebuch survive and thrive on landlocked mountainsides, while their counterparts in the Burren ply their trade in a landscape that's hilly rather than mountainous and located within sight and sound of the Atlantic.

I recently witnessed farmers in both places preparing their cattle for winter just as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

The farmers of the Alps, in an age-old practice, brought their cattle down from the summer pastures of the upper Alps before the snows came.

A few weeks later the farmers of the Burren took their stock upland to the upper pastures of the flaggy Burren before the winter rains softened the lower lands.

In late September, as the Ploughing marked the turning of the year in Irish farming, I made my way to the Canton of Lucerne in Switzerland to see Swiss farmers marking the turn of their year.

Bus, plane and train took me from Clare to Zurich and to the small town of Entlebuch where, with fellow journalists from places as far afield as Argentina, Ukraine, Slovenia and South Africa, I was a guest of the Federal Office of Agriculture.

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We had been invited to witness the Alpabfahrt or the 'Descent from the Alps' and to observe a referendum enshrining food security into the Swiss constitution.

Our first outing took us to Abnistetten Alp, 1,250m above sea level to the mountain farm of the Theiler family, Silvia, Reto and their five children.

The mountain farm extends to 100ha, of which 60ha are owned by the family and 40ha leased from a neighbouring farmer. This was a cheese farm until 1948, when the practice was discontinued. Silvia and Reto revived it in 2011.

The summer farm carries 36 dairy cows and 16 followers, with the cows producing 650 litres of milk every day from May to October.

This year the milk produced nine tons of cheese, of which one ton was sold directly to customers, with eight tons sold to a cheese marketing company, Intercheese.

When we visited, the family were getting ready to move their whole operation down the mountain to the 'home farm' of 28ha situated lower in the Alps. Cows, equipment, milking parlour, the lot was being shipped down to join the family's 280-pig swineherd.

The summer pastures have done their job; the rich mix of grasses, plants and herbs have nourished the stock so it is time to make for the shelter of the valley.

The mountain farm is a hive of activity as Reto's father polishes and shines the ceremonial bells for the journey.

Some are as big as buckets; indeed, one wonders not only how the cows carry them but how they put up with the din. But then they wear less elaborate versions all year round.

Women from the extended family along with neighbours prepare garlands of mountain flowers and elaborate head-dresses for the cows.

The women sing traditional Alpine songs in rich harmonies as they create the floral decorations the animals will wear when they parade with their owners through the local town of Schupfheim.

Over 13,000 people will gather in the town the following day to welcome the stock down from the mountains. All across the Alps similar preparations are being made. The summer pastures will be abandoned for the winter until they regenerate themselves in time for the stock to return in mid-May.

Tinkling

The following day the hills are alive with the sound of tinkling, thunking and jingling as thousands of bell-adorned animals led by men and women in traditional costume make their way down the mountains.

The cacophony of sound ringing out across the mountains and valleys is truly amazing as the animals head for their winter quarters with the last of the flowers of the summer draped across their backs.

They are welcomed into Schupfheim by the thousands of locals and visitors gathered in festive mood to toast the end of the summer and the onset of winter.

Booths, stalls and shops are busy selling local sausage, cheese and dishes of Alplermagronen, a local speciality made with pasta, potatoes, cheese, onions and apple-sauce. Meanwhile a wide variety of schnapps, beers and wines are available to lift the drooping spirits in advance of the first flakes of snow.

Groups of singers break into spontaneous Alpine song until early afternoon sees the grand finale played out on the steps of the church. Hundreds of singers are joined by a band of alpenhorn players whose haunting sound brings the formal part of the festivities to an end. The informal celebrations go on for much longer.

The cows are back in the valleys and the humans party into the night.


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