As summer approaches, thousands of herdsmen move their cows, cattle, sheep and goats up the mountains to where life depends entirely on the rhythm of nature. It may look idyllic at first glance but in reality it is really hard work.

Alpine pastures are mainly located above the tree line and are only used during the summer months. Without this Alpine farming, it would have been hardly possible for there to have been any significant Alpine settlement from Neolithic times up until the economic upheavals of the 19th century. Alpine farming takes the pressure off the meadows in the valleys and enables the vital stockpiling of resources for the winter. Still now, roughly one third of the land surface in Switzerland devoted to agriculture is in the Alps. Around 500,000 heads of cattle including calves – one third of the national herd – spend some 100 days in the summer, grazing on 7000 alpages. They are supported by 17,000 Alpine herdsmen and women.

Alpine herding and farming

The herdsmen and women on the Alps in the summer are mainly responsible for looking after the cattle belonging to the farmers. Their job is to drive the cattle to pasture, milk them twice a day and make cheese. At the end of September, the cows and cowherds return back to the valley. If the whole valley farm moves up into the Alps in summer, then it is referred to as an Alpine farm. Typical of this economic system are the Alpine villages, which make social life possible. Life on an Alp is marked by hard work and little comfort – as well as by memorable experiences and exposure to spectacular natural beauty.

Alpine ascent and descent of the cattle

Even before the start of the summer, the herdsmen and women dressed in traditional costumes move the elaborately decorated animals up from the valley farms while being admired by many onlookers and folklore fans. The cattle are driven back down into the valleys in the autumn. Once again, the festive procession of costumed herdspeople and decorated animals attracts thousands of spectators and culminates in various festivities.

Call to prayer and Alpine blessing

In many parts of the Catholic Alpine regions, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, the old herdsmen’s prayer, the "Bättruf" (call to prayer) or "Alpsäge" (Alpine blessing) is offered up in the evening after work. It is a unanimous, unaccompanied chant in a High German coloured by the use of a local dialect. The hands are held over the mouth like a funnel or a wooden milk funnel is used. In this manner, a call is made to all four directions of the compass to Mary and the patron saints and protection requested for all living beings and all possessions on the Alp. As a supposedly pagan blessing of the cattle, the Betruf was officially banned by the Lucerne government in 1609. Only later, a Jesuit priest, Johann Baptist Dillier (1668-1745), reinterpreted this ancient cattle-related invocation into a Christian one by, among other things, converting the form of the call from "Loba" (for calling on the cows) into "God be praised" and creating from the "cattle blessing" a Christian context.

Alpine carnival

The completion of the Alpine summer is widely celebrated with a carnival (Älplerchilbi) - a centuries-old tradition that brings together the farmers after a rich Alpine summer to give thanks to God for the gifts received and then to enjoy a time of eating, music and dance. The form varies depending on the size of the locality and on the local traditions. Especially in the area around the Rigi (Central Switzerland) the 20th century saw the introduction of variations to these festivals with a focus on street parades, and thus on the (re)presentation of Alpine life and traditions in general. Here they are called "Sennenchilbi" (herdsmen’s festivals) and each time attract a nationwide audience of up to thirty thousand visitors.

Staying on an Alp

City-dwellers often come and stay in the mountains, and the dream of fresh air, unspoilt mountain scenery, and distance from everyday urban stresses attracts people such as lawyers, teachers, doctors and artists to come and watch over the cattle in summer. There are other ways to get to experience the Alpine lifestyle too: Some Alpine farms offer guided tours for tourists including visits to show dairies and other guests may help with the milking, mucking out or fence repairing. Some mountain huts can be rented for holidays.

Additional links:

Website of the Alpine farmers with situations vacant and more  Impressions of Alpine life  Schweizerischer Alpwirtschaftlicher Verband (Swiss Association of Alpine Farmers)  Alpine community of interests   Stable visit – Swiss farmers invite you to their farm  SwissMooh- farm visits for groups