Cattle drives are not just for cowboys
When most people picture summer in the Alps, they think of cows grazing on idyllic mountain pastures. But once the cooler temperatures come (which happens towards the end of summer at high altitudes), the cows suddenly disappear from the green meadows, soon to be replaced with snow and winter sports enthusiasts. When the cattle (and sometimes other farm animals) return to the valley for the year, each mountain village stages a festival to welcome the livestock and cow herders back.
If you see decorated cows parading down the mountain, it means there were no accidents over the summer and the entire herd as well as the cow herders are safe and healthy. But if anything unfortunate happened during their stay auf der Alm, up at the summer farms located at high altitudes, the cattle are not outfitted with costumes. The coming down of the cows is known in German-speaking areas as the Almabtrieb (Austria) or Alpabzug (Switzerland) and sometimes also as Viehscheid (Bavaria). The latter describes what happens at the end of the cows’ procession to the valley: The herd of livestock (Vieh) is sorted and each cow given back to its respective owner (Scheid in this sense means dividing or splitting up).
The lead cow, known as the Leitkuh, Moarkuh or Kranzkuh and being the most beautiful cow, is carefully selected by the cow herders and adorned with a colorful wreath made of flowers, pine boughs and good luck charms. These include a cross and pictures or figurines of Catholic saints meant to protect the cows, as well as a mirror. The custom of putting a mirror on the lead cow dates back to the Middle Ages, when mirrors were considered a sign of good luck because they were nearly impossible to afford and thus a sign of great worth and richness. The remaining members of the herd are also equipped with headdresses, garlands and other adornments, but none quite as elaborate as those of the lead cow. All of the cattle wear the traditional cowbells, whose clanging signals the return of the herd and is meant to drive away evil spirits. The way the Alpine folk decorate their cows proves how highly they value them and emphasizes the cows’ central role in Alpine culture and life.
The celebration awaiting the cow parade at the end of its journey is further proof of this fact: All of the villagers congregate in the village center to celebrate their good fortune, all of the locals congregate in the village center to celebrate their good fortune and dress in traditional clothing to show their pride. Each valley has its own characteristic set of traditional costumes, so you will get to see authentic and lavishly decorated Dirndls and Lederhosen with unique insignia. From a culinary standpoint, the cattle drive fests have much to offer, as local dairy-based delicacies like fresh mountain cheese are available for purchase. Other specialties such as smoked hams or mountain honey are often for sale. Some towns also have markets with traditional goods, such as boiled wool products to accompany the festivities.
If you are in the Alps during late summer/early fall, be sure to check out one of the cattle drive fests and join in the jovial atmosphere and fun. Just be aware of the following: What was once a small get-together within the village community has become a full-scale celebration thanks to tourism, so it can be very difficult to find parking. Using public transportation and getting there early to have a good view of the parade are advisable.
You can find a list of the 2016 cow festivals in Germany at www.bavaria.by. Some of the Austrian cattle drives are listed at www.zillertal.at or at www.tyrol.com. For the Swiss Alpine festivals, check out www.myswitzerland.com.