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In photos Following a steep Alpine cattle descent

The summer’s gone, and the season on the Alpine pastures is drawing to a close. We spent a day with farmhands moving cattle down to lower pastures on a steep mountain track. 

The Alpine chalet on the Kaiseregg Alp, which stands at an altitude of 1,799 metres, is now empty. No-one’s home, but the door is not locked. There are still some glowing coals in the stove, and the mountain mist has started to drift into the kitchen. It is cool now, and the light in the main room is weak. All the way up, I could hardly see 50 metres in front of me.

After nearly two hours of waiting, the clouds outside have parted a bit. In the distance I can see a car with a trailer going up the slope at a laborious pace. It’s Erich Offner the shepherd, with a friend of his from Plaffeien. This afternoon they have been transporting various materials, empty bottles, and an electricity generator to the upper terminus of a goods cable-car line. They would have been faster on foot than in the chugging motor vehicle.

Early next morning there’s work to be done. An injured cow needs to be evacuated by helicopter. Whereas the other animals and the shepherds can look forward to a two-hour trip on foot, the chopper is down at the lower pasture in a few minutes.   

It’s time to bring the herd up across the Kaiseregg Pass, then down to the pasture at Grossniederhaus, where there’s plenty of fresh grass available. Despite the cold and moisture on the ground, the animals are surefooted. They are carefully herded along.

Erich is twenty-five years old. Even as a little boy he was up here on the Kaiseregg Alp when his parents spent summers here with their herd of cattle. In the winter he works down in the valley, earning his living as a bricklayer. 

Inherited tradition

Life up on the Alpine pasture may not be quite as picturesque as people think, but it is a way of life that he inherited from his parents and that he wants to keep up himself. He knows the paths well, and this is not his first time bringing the herd up or down the mountain – but it is the first time that he is completely in charge.

You don’t get rich at this kind of work. So you have to care about living the simple life, and being in the midst of nature with the animals. The shepherd is paid a fixed amount per animal for the time spent up on the Alpine pasture by the owner of the herd. Erich negotiates a lease on the pasture from its owner, which in this case is Armasuisse, the federal government’s defence procurement agency, which has operated a shooting range for the Swiss army nearby for many years.

The numerous helping hands involved in the herding operation are not paid any money. But Erich’s mother and sister are waiting at the Alpine chalet with a traditional meal for the lot of them. It’s neighbour-help-neighbour, and appreciation is shown with a «Häppere-Brägu» (a hearty potato rösti) eaten with spoons from a common pot, and a few bottles of beer.  

The region will officially celebrate the 2019 return from the Alpine pastures on September 21 in the village of Plaffeien.

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