Tra­di­tion and pride

The sound is both exhil­a­rat­ing and deaf­en­ing. This is Switzer­land at its tra­di­tion­al best: Hun­dreds of brown cows – com­plete with cow bells – return­ing from the alpine pas­ture to their win­ter homes, cre­at­ing a fes­ti­val for tens of thou­sands of peo­ple. Wel­come to the Alpa­b­fahrt – the Alp Descent.

As Swiss tra­di­tions go, this has to be one of the most stir­ring. See­ing the pride on farm­ers’ faces as they parade their ani­mals – bells clang­ing – through the streets of the local town, the joy with which onlook­ers cel­e­brate the occa­sion, and the tra­di­tion­al music, food and cloth­ing – it’s an atmos­phere nev­er to for­get.

And it’s a tra­di­tion that goes back hun­dreds of years – the cows graze the alpine pas­tures over the sum­mer months, pro­duc­ing rich fresh milk for their calves or to be made into Swiss moun­tain cheese, and are then brought down to their low­land homes for the win­ter. The move­ment takes place every autumn, involv­ing near­ly 1m ani­mals across Aus­tria, Ger­many and Switzer­land – and in many areas it has become a major tourist attrac­tion.

Entle­buch tra­di­tion

In Entle­buch – which is one of the world’s 669 bios­pheres, includ­ing Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park and the Gala­pa­gos islands – the event holds a spe­cial place in farmer Hans Felder’s heart. His fam­i­ly have been bring­ing the cows down from the Alps since 1910 – and it’s a tremen­dous occa­sion.

“It makes me feel very proud that peo­ple appre­ci­ate us and come out to see us – it’s quite impres­sive,” he says. “This is the fifth gen­er­a­tion to do the Alpa­b­fahrt – the youngest is a year old – and it’s very impor­tant that it con­tin­ues.”

It makes me feel very proud that peo­ple appre­ci­ate us and come out to see us – it’s quite impres­sive

Hans Felder

Mr Felder grazes 33 suck­ler and milk­ing cows at Mit­tler Farnere near Lucerne, with 30ha of alpine pas­ture (4,600 feet up) and 8ha down the moun­tain. His is one of sev­en farms to take part in the local Alp Descent, which ends up in the town of Schüpfheim, where tens of thou­sands of peo­ple turn out to cel­e­brate.

With his son, five daugh­ters, and grand­chil­dren – who get the Fri­day off school to pre­pare for the big event on Sat­ur­day – there are around 25 fam­i­ly mem­bers tak­ing part in the descent. Prepa­ra­tions include weav­ing flow­ers into dec­o­ra­tive sash­es and head-dress­es for the cows, pol­ish­ing the cow bells, and mak­ing sure the tra­di­tion­al dress­es and suits are clean and pressed.

Cer­e­mo­ni­al cow bells

The big day arrives, and there is a ner­vous buzz in the air. With the cows teth­ered in a long line, Mr Felder and his fam­i­ly wash them before attach­ing the cer­e­mo­ni­al cow bells – much larg­er than those worn while graz­ing in the fields – along with the flower sash­es and head-dress­es.

Things get some­what chaot­ic as anoth­er farmer pass­es by with his own herd of Swiss Brown cows, dec­o­rat­ed with sun­flow­ers and herd­ed by men in short-sleeved black vel­vet jack­ets and women wear­ing green dress­es with pale pinafores. Mer­ry greet­ings are exchanged as the fam­i­lies sep­a­rate their rather friend­ly cows, and the oth­er fam­i­ly go on their way down the moun­tain.

It’s time to leave. Mr Felder’s grand­chil­dren Robin (12) and Ellie (11) lead the way with two hand­some brown goats, decked out with appro­pri­ate­ly tin­kling bells. Next in line comes 78-year old Hans lead­ing the grand-dames of the herd, which are the most heav­i­ly dec­o­rat­ed, fol­lowed by the younger cows and calves.

The cer­e­mo­ni­al cow bells are much larg­er than those worn while graz­ing in the fields.

Tourist attrac­tion

It could be a health and safe­ty night­mare, as local res­i­dents and tourists line the road, snap­ping pho­tos and video of the smil­ing and wav­ing farm­ers. But these cows are well han­dled in their small herds and seem unper­turbed by the inces­sant jan­gling of the cow bells or their ornate head-dress­es.

More than five miles – and near­ly 2,300 feet in alti­tude – lat­er, the Felders enter the pic­turesque town of Schüpfheim. Although it only boasts just over 4,000 res­i­dents, today it attracts over 10,000 vis­i­tors, who throng the streets, fre­quent­ing local food and craft stalls and enjoy­ing tra­di­tion­al music and danc­ing per­formed by Swiss adults and chil­dren alike.

There is an impor­tant aspect to this local tra­di­tion – it real­ly helps to build links between farm­ers and the gen­er­al pub­lic. Farm­ing in the Entle­buch region is not eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable, so pro­duc­ers rely on gov­ern­ment sup­port as well as adding val­ue to their pro­duce and sell­ing direct.

Although the pic­turesque town of Schüpfheim only boasts just over 4,000 res­i­dents, on the day of the Alp Descent it attracts over 10,000 vis­i­tors.

Local cheese

By bring­ing the pub­lic in direct con­tact with farm­ers – and in such a jovial atmos­phere – they see the cows and the pride their own­ers take in them. They taste the local cheese, meats, bread and beer, and wit­ness the impor­tance of rur­al tra­di­tions. Nes­tled in the stun­ning Swiss coun­try­side, it’s a fes­ti­val which cel­e­brates the wider val­ue of farm­ing as well as the cows them­selves.

As they wave to the crowds and pat their cows on the back, the Felder fam­i­ly look much more relaxed as they enter the final stretch, hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly guid­ed their live­stock down the moun­tain roads, ready to head back to their home farm at Steimät­tili, on the out­skirts of Schüpfheim. Some farm­ers even dis­man­tle their milk­ing par­lours and relo­cate them in time for the evening milk­ing.

But first it’s time to unwind, knock back a beer and tra­di­tion­al sausage, and enjoy lis­ten­ing to the alpen­horn orches­tra and yodel­ing choir, assem­bled on the steps of the town church. The fes­tiv­i­ties go on well into the evening, but the good­will engen­dered by the Alpa­b­fahrt will last for a life­time.