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… 🤗🎆👍

Pic d’Artsinol Walk – 2nd attempt

Almost a month ago I set off to walk to the top of the Pic d’Artsinol, but I was thwarted by too much snow. The weather since has not been particularly warm, but yesterday I decided that it was probably time to give it another go, especially with the chairlift from Lanna opening, which saved me around 700m or 2,300ft of climbing to Chemeuille. 😊

I was however a little hesitant as I drove the car the 1 mile/2 km or so to Lanna, as the peak was covered in cloud. But I hoped that the sun might burn that off and I’d have 360 degree views. Sadly that was not the case, though I did get a good view of the Dixence Dam, which I thought was at least a nice link to my last post. And the clouds did add a little atmosphere to some of the photos.

As you will see in pics 8 and 9, I was joined on the ascent by a very small butterfly (one of only four I saw all day, surprisingly enough, given the number of flowers around). It very cleverly landed on the strap of my camera, making it a little difficult to get a photo, until I realised I had my phone in my pocket. After what seemed like an age, fumbling to get it out, typing in the pin code and selecting the camera option, all without disturbing the butterfly, I managed to get quite a few (and surprisingly good) shots. My only doubt as to its identity as a Small Blue (male) is that my book seems to suggest the first 2 dots on the hind wing should be “equal or less than 90 degrees to the edge of the wing”. (Though it looks identical to a Small Blue photo on the author’s website). So, if there are any experts out there who agree or disagree, I’d like to hear from them.

Equally, if anyone can tell me what the flower is in pic 22, I’d be most grateful. It was at around 2,750m or 9,000ft.

Grande Dixence Dam Walk, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

Firstly let me say a big THANK YOU to Vivienne at BugWomanLondon, David at White-Rainbows and Brian at blhphotoblog for taking the time to reply to my Damsel/Dragonfly quiz. I don’t know the correct answers, so all I can say is, you’re all winners! 😊

The road up to the Grande Dixence dam is now open. So yesterday I thought I’d take a drive up there, to walk along the track which runs by the side of the reservoir. Everything was going well until I came across a huge patch of snow, (see pic 21), which was probably the result of an avalanche during the winter. So I turned about and headed up to the Gentiane hut, which was closed and completely deserted.

The reservoir is one of a 1000 in Switzerland and ‘Lac des Dix’ is the largest lake over 2,000m in the Alps. As I’m sure many of you will already know, (since I’ve posted this a few times now 😉) at 285m or 935ft, it’s also the tallest gravity dam in the world. (It’s the 5th tallest in the world and the tallest in Europe). The dam itself is 700m or 3,000 ft wide and contains around 6 million cubic metres of concrete. It holds up to 400 million cubic metres of water, but it was only just over half full yesterday. It’s fed by 4 smaller reservoirs in the neighbouring valleys, including Ferpècle and Zermatt, via around 100km or 62 miles of tunnels. The level of water gradually rises throughout the year in preparation for the huge increase in electricity usage during the cold winters.

My walk started in sunshine, but the clouds soon came over, so it wasn’t a great day for photography. If you’d like to see some impressive aerial shots and to find out more fascinating facts about the dam, please click here.

Foret de Pfynges Walk and a Damsel/Dragonfly Quiz

Today my wife, Judith, and I went for a walk around the Foret de Pfynges Nature Reserve which runs alongside the river Rhone. We had hoped to spot a few birds but, with the trees being so tall and canopy thick with foliage, in the event, we spotted everything but birds. We saw fish, frogs (or toads), butterflies, crickets and a couple of Coots. (OK, they are birds. but they were not exactly what we were looking for).

HOWEVER, we did see an awful lot of damselflies and dragonflies. So many in fact, I haven’t the time to look them all up, (and I’d probably get them wrong anyway). So I thought I’d throw them out there as a sort of quiz… (See pics Q1 to Q11). I know at least 2 people who may know quite a few (if not all?) of the answers.
(Vivienne – I bet you’ve been dying to test out that new book of yours. I see Question 10 is on the front cover…)

Walk to Roc Vieux, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

If you look out from our chalet balcony, you cannot help but notice the ‘twin peaks’ of the Grande and Petite Dents de Veisivi. I have posted several pictures of these over the years – including this one from last week. To get to the top of the smaller one, which is ‘only’ 3,183m (or 10,443ft) high, you need to be a proper climber, using ropes, etc. However, I’m advised that it is possible to walk, or maybe scramble, up to the top of the larger one, at 3,418m (or 11,214ft), but I’ve not tried that yet. (We hear rocks falling off this peak all the time, so it’s not a proposition to be taken lightly).

Thankfully, about half way up the ‘front’ of them, there is an area called Roc Vieux, which affords a wonderful view back down the valley. I’m not sure if there is a precise spot or ‘old rock’ as such, but there is a wooden cross, so that serves as a good point to aim for.

On the map I noticed another path, which was only partly marked, to the hamlet called Lu Veijuvi and I decided to give it a try on the descent. It turned out to be safe enough, (if you avoid the bridge in pic 25), but it was quite steep.

As you will see from the pictures below, there were quite a number of butterflies around, including an Alpine Grayling and a Small Tortoiseshell laying her eggs. (I wondered why it never flew off when I took the first set of photos). 🤔

To Happyland and Beyond…

No, this is not a post about recreational drugs, though recreation and endorphins are involved… It’s about a Swiss running event, organised by Datasport, called One Million Run, where the aim is for all the participants to run a total of 1 Million kilometres this weekend. In typical, precise Swiss fashion, the event started at 00:00 this (Saturday) morning and goes on until midnight on Sunday.

Anybody (based in Switzerland I presume) can register and run any distance they wish. An app is available to monitor your progress and distance and, upon completion, the results are then transferred into the Datasport ‘Live’ results website. Or, you could use your own GPS device and upload that later. At the time of writing over 70,000 people had entered, 6,000 were running and 16,000 plus had finished (at least for today).

For my part, I’ve been doing a bit of running here and there, trying to get fit again, but my run last weekend was my longest at 7.6km (4.7 miles). So my first challenge was in deciding how far to run. 10km (6 miles) seemed a little short to be a sufficient challenge, but 20km (12.5 miles) might be just a bit too far, so I settled for 15km (9.3 miles). My next dilemma was where and when to run… The only route I have around here, is up and down the riverside, which is no more than 4km one way, so that would mean doing the 100m (328ft) climb twice! On the other hand it would be cooler here (at around 15 degrees C) versus the 20+ deg C heat down in the Rhone valley… After some internal debate, my decision was to go with the ‘flat’ of the Rhone riverside, but to set off early and run in the relative ‘cool’ of 17-18 degrees at 8:45am.

My route would start near the Sion Golf Club and take me past a couple of lakes to my expected turnaround point at 8km, just beyond the Happyland amusement park. I chose to turn around at 8km as, psychologically, it makes it lot easier to do the 7km on the way back, plus it gave me a km to warm down/cool off!

I measured the distance on my old GPS watch and it appears to have sold me short by 50 metres. Although my watch said I’d done 15km when I stopped, the GPX file uploaded to my SwissMaponline app (see below), says 14.95km (and the official result says 14.9k). Either way, I’m very pleased that I decided to take part and managed to finish without stopping or getting injured. 😊👍

Oh, and for those who may be interested, my time was 1h 22m 8s.
To save you doing the maths, that’s a shade under 5.5m per km (or 8m 52s per mile).

Alpine Flora and Butterfly Walk, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

Yesterday my wife, Jude, and I went for a walk from the parking area near Les Farquesses up to Les Mayens de la Cretta. With the sun shining brightly and many more alpine flowers in full bloom, we were expecting to photograph a few butterflies. I hadn’t even switched the engine off and Jude announced that she’d already counted 11 butterflies fluttering around the meadow beside the car. We didn’t even need to venture into the meadow to take the pictures, as there was plenty of activity by the side of the road. About 20 minutes later we finally dragged ourselves away. I believe the first 3 butterflies in the gallery below are ‘firsts’ for this website. 😊

Pic d’Artsinol Walk, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

Yesterday I set off from home to walk to the top of the Pic d’Artsinol (@2,998m or 9,836ft). After my experience on Monday, I was hopeful that I’d be able to reach the top, since there are some wide open meadows and the final ridge to the summit faces south. However, as you will see from photo no. 16, I had to turn around at 2,580m (8,465ft), as there was too much snow.

Nevertheless it was a great walk and I spotted a new plant for me in the Alpine Butterwort (pic 9) which my Alpine Flora book tells me is “not common” and is carnivorous. “Insects become glued to the glandular leaf surface and digested by the plant”. And at the very end of my walk I spotted a mating pair of, what I believe to be, Osiris Blues which, if correct, is another first!

Remointse du Tsaté Walk, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland

For the past few days I’ve been itching to do this walk, but the clouds have been clinging steadfastly to the mountain tops. With clear blue skies forecast yesterday, at least initially, I set off to drive the short distance to La Forclaz (VS).

My aim was to reach the small lake or pond at the area called Remointse du Tsaté (@2,502m or 8,209ft). I had no idea how much snow there would be and, in the event, my route to the lake was clear, but the lake was almost surrounded, as you will see below.

I was quite lucky because the sun had all but gone in when I arrived at the lake, though the distant mountains were still as bright as ever. I took a few photos and then, miraculously, the sun came out, so I took them all over again! It was an amazing sight for sure and one which I had all to myself. 😀

Butterfly photo experiment

The other day I went for a short walk behind our chalet, taking my my wife’s SLR camera, complete with telephoto lens. I wondered whether it might give better results than my point and shoot and the results can be seen below.

Note that with the SLR telephoto lens I couldn’t get it to autofocus from within 1 metre / 3 feet, so all the pictures had to be taken from afar. This was a great advantage as I didn’t disturb the butterflies as much and I managed to capture maybe 80% of the ones which landed nearby. With my point and shoot, it’s a case of stalking the butterfly, taking photos as I get closer and closer, until it either flies away or I get to within 5 to 8 cm or 2 to 3 inches. With this method I maybe capture 30 to 40%. However, if I do manage to get that close, then the images from the point and shoot, as you might expect, are much better. Though that could be down to my handling of the SLR of course.

So, is it better to capture more butterflies with ‘OK’ results or are we seeking to achieve that ‘perfect’ shot? If you have any views, I’d be pleased to receive your comments.

Most of the butterflies in this gallery you will have seen before but, given the cloudy weather conditions that we’d had during the day, I was amazed to photograph 12 different sorts in the hour or so that I was out. (One photo of a female ‘blue’, which I couldn’t identify anyway, was too blurred to include).