The Hérens – queen of the cows
The Hérens breed of cattle has a special place in Swiss hearts.
Cows are as much a part of Swiss tradition as watchmaking and chocolate. And with their fighting spirit, the Hérens are the country's most renowned breed.
There's something quintessentially Swiss about a herd of cows chewing the cud in an Alpine meadow. All over the world people associate cows with Switzerland – just as much as chocolate, gold bullions or watches. The cow is a time-honoured part of the Swiss landscape. And as with all livestock, the different breeds of cattle are classified by their main purpose – dairy, beef, or both in some cases. In fact, most Swiss cattle are mixed-purpose, with one breed attracting particular attention: the Hérens.
At home in the mountains
The Hérens are a tough mountain breed. For generations, they have been reared in the mountainous canton of Valais, and still in most cases above the 1,000-metre line. Here, owning an Hérens cow is a source of pride and honour. "It's in the blood. Hérens breeders pace their lives to the rhythm of the herd. Their children grow up with this, and the tradition just passes down from one generation to the next," explains Benoît Berguerand. Many Hérens cows are actually owned by non-farmers. "Looking after a cow is a lot of work, so very often people leave theirs with a breeder. For example, Gérard Depardieu and Lara Gut have their cows reared by a local farmer." These cows then form part of a herd.
One such owner who 'outsources' the rearing of her Hérens cow is 28-year-old Katia Zufferey. An oenologist by profession, she shares ownership of the cow with her winegrower father. It's a tradition started by her paternal grandfather, who was involved in setting up the communal cattle shed in the Alpine valley of Val d'Anniviers. The Zufferey family have had around 10 cows since 1998. Boarding their cow with a breeder in St Luc costs them 250 francs a month, plus more for the three months of summer pasture, veterinary fees, siring and hay. They also have to put in two days a year mucking out the barn. "It's an expensive passion, but the Hérens are part of the family and even therapeutic in a way. I love spending time with them, and I feel safer in their company than with any other breed. It was always my dream to have my own Hérens." As a native of the Valais, Katia is very much at home with the traditional and distinctive feature of this breed – their combative instinct.
Left to their own devices, Hérens cattle will instinctively challenge each other in order to establish a hierarchy in the herd. During the winter they stay in a shed but are let out every week. Once outdoors, they waste no time in locking horns. "It's as if they can't wait. They'll even start fighting on the ice," laughs Katia. When spring comes, the herd is turned out to spend the daytime in the fields. The battles pick up pace, and the cow that wins them all gains the natural respect of the herd. This is the time of year when the regional cow fights are held, in the Valais but also over the Italian border in the Aosta Valley. Owners can enter their cows in the regional heats in one of five categories, sorted by age and weight. "I remember the first time I entered a cow for a fight. I was really looking forward to it but then I had to withdraw my cow because of an injured hoof. It was so disappointing!" recalls Katia.
Fighting for the title of queen
The top seven contenders in each category win a sonnette, a large cowbell on a leather collar. This is their ticket to the Swiss final, organised each year in turn by one of the local branches of the national federation of Hérens breeders. The grand finale has been held at the beginning of May every year since 1922. The event draws a huge crowd, with more than 10,000 people packing the arena in 2017. Here, the jury crowns a queen in each of the five categories. "The competition is open to cows aged over two and a half years weighing between 400kg and 900kg. Weight is certainly a factor, but it's not necessarily decisive when it comes to the final," points out Benoît Berguerand.
A cow is ranked by the number of bouts it wins. If it loses or retreats three times, it is eliminated and has to be taken out of the ring. The cow that goes on to beat the winners in all the other categories is crowned the 'queen of queens'. "The highest we've ever come was in 2011, when we were seventh in one of the qualifiers. But unfortunately, at that time, only the top six went through to the finals," says Katia. "For breeders, getting through to the national final is the culmination of years of hard work. It's nerve-racking," adds Benoît, who never misses a final. "But it's very rewarding to have a cow placed, because these animals have a mind of their own. If they don't want to fight, there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes a cow will be tipped as a favourite after the qualifying heats and then simply refuse to fight on the day."
Back home for the winter
Around the end of May or early June, the different regional associations decide which cows will spend the summer months together on the high mountain pastures. Once herded off, the cows can get used to the sound of other bells and, more importantly, size up their rivals. The herds graze on Alpine pastures from mid-June to mid-September. A team of herders tend to them and milk them every day, and the milk is used to make cheese for the winter. At the end of the summer season, the herders determine who is the queen of the herd. This cow will then lead the traditional désalpe procession down to the valley, adorned with a crown of flowers. "I live my life by the seasons of my cow, but I wouldn't have it any other way. And I couldn't have any other breed of cow: my Hérens is one of the family," beams Katia.