Life in Switzerland, Part 1 – Cows

For some time I’ve thought about describing some of the ‘nuances’ of an expat living in Switzerland, but never quite got around to it. (It’s amazing what self-isolation can do to you!*) So here is the first in a series, which may run and run, depending upon what life here throws at me (and Jude) during the year. I hope you will find it interesting, or at least a little different to life wherever you may be. 😊

Regular readers may recall that we live in a small village, called Evolène, which lies at almost 1,400m or 4,600ft in the Val d’Hérens in the southern part of Switzerland. We describe it as authentic, as the traditions that have gone on for eons are still continuing today. In particular the Val d’Hérens breed of cow is almost revered around here (quite rightly of course), due to its uniqueness.

There are several small farms in and around the 6 villages at the top of the valley (the other 5 are Les Haudères, Villa, La Sage, La Forclaz and Arolla) and each farmer has only around 8 to 12 cows. (This compares with about 100 per typical farm in the UK). In the winter, since we’re under 1 to 2 feet of snow for most of the time, the cows are kept in their sheds until the Spring/early Summer.

Sometime in June, when there’s a spell of good dry weather, the farmers will come to cut the grass in the fields. The whole of the Commune is divided up into hundreds of small plots, each legally owned by different people, but it seems each farmer ‘owns’ the right to cut the grass on many different plots. Rather curiously, these plots are not always adjacent to each other, so it can lead to a sort of patchwork of cut/not cut grass. (See pic 6 below).

Every year, 2 ladies come with their grass cutter, go through our small field and cut the grass in the 4 plots below. The total size of these 4 plots is only about 20 yards by 70 yards (max). So it’s farming on a small scale by anyone’s standards. How many plots these 2 ladies cut altogether, is a mystery. When these ladies came the very first time, just after we’d moved in, we thought we must have upset the locals as they disappeared without touching our grass. We needn’t have worried as our plot is used by another famer…

Almost exactly 2 weeks later, Johan, the farmer who lives just below us, comes to cut the grass in our field and many of the other plots around and about the neighbouring chalets. The grass is then left for a day, before being turned or tossed around by a sort of spinning machine (and/or by hand) and a day later it’s ‘rowed up’ to be scooped up into the back of a truck. Every little blade of useful hay is gathered up by 2, sometimes 3, helpers raking into line any stray bits which have escaped or were not rowed correctly. Below are a few pictures of the machines and farmers in action on various plots in the valley.

At the end of June, once the snow has disappeared from what’s known as the ‘alpage’ (i.e. that area of lush meadow between the higher villages and the rocky mountain tops), the cows are all taken up to graze for the summer. This is known locally as the Inalp or transhumance, which I joined in with once and blogged about here.

At the end of September, all the cows are brought back down to their respective farms to get ready for the winter again. However, there are often several days of glorious sunshine to be had. So the farmers, Johan again in this case, places an electric wire or fence around the fields he uses and then brings the cows up for the day – usually around 10am. (The sun has reached the fields by then). Around 4pm, he, or someone from his family, then leads them back to the sheds.

All of this brings me neatly to this video of the cows arriving for the day and crossing our small field. (I would call it a garden but we enjoy the cows coming so much, we have resisted the temptation to ‘do something with it’ and have left it in the capable hands of the farmer to use. 😊

*Footnote: Our 10 day isolation period ends today (though I understand the UK has now been taken off the Swiss ‘red list’!) Glorious weather is forecast for the next few days, so ‘normal service’ will resume tomorrow… 🤗🎆👍

17 thoughts on “Life in Switzerland, Part 1 – Cows

  1. So interesting, Mike! The division of the fields sounds pretty much like what happened in the UK before enclosure. And the leading out of the cows is the same in Obergurgl. I really look forward to the rest of this series!

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    • It’s an interesting and ‘different’ place to live, that’s for sure! Normally they take the cows back to their sheds at night, but we have about 8 or 9 young cows (heifers) outside the chalet at the moment with their small bells clanging. They seem to be settling down for the night, but I hope they don’t get up too early in the morning!

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      • That sounds like fun! But yes, I hope they sleep in. I grew up in a small town that had a big Portuguese population. Many families came to our town from the Azores. They brought with them their annual customs and religious celebrations. The one I enjoyed most was the cow parade. They would dress up their livestock and children in old world clothing to parade through Main Street and hand out little cartons of milk and sweetbread to kids. The adults would bring jugs of homemade wine to share. At night there was a candlelight procession to the Catholic Church. Only as an adult who no longer lives there do I understand how unique that is.

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        • That sounds like an amazing celebration. The heifers are out there now tinkling (or should that be jangling?) away. The first night they seemed to be moving around, even in the dark, but the sound generally comes and goes during the day as they go from one side of the chalet to the other. But it is actually quite pleasant and almost tuneful. 😊

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  2. This is gorgeous!!! Jim and I love the sound of ‘the clangers’ as we call them! Wherever you go in Europe it seems, sheep, cattle and goats have bells – and the sound is magical! Why we don’t use them here, especially in the more remote areas of the country? – I don’t know…
    I have one formerly worn by sheep, given to us from Mallorca. It’s small but the sound is fantastic – very loud! During lockdown I used it to ring for the NHS every Thursday evening – I felt that my applause alone wasn’t loud enough! Thanks for the fabulous post and the video is enchanting! Maxine 🙂

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