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Thousands to flock to shepherd festival

The hundreds of sheep are usually outnumbered by "flocks" of spectators at the festival

(Keystone Archive)

The annual Shepherd Festival on the Gemmi Pass has done much to reconcile former warring Swiss tribes. Where shepherds now celebrate their flock, blood once flowed between the people living on opposite sides of the pass.

At 11am sharp on July 29, the shepherds spending the summer with their flocks on the mountain slopes above the Gemmi Pass will give a signal to their animals.

As if pre-programmed, the sheep will race down the mountainside with their sights set on a small lake, knowing that salt, which has been withheld from them for weeks, will be awaiting them along the shore.

The Shepherd Festival has become a top summer attraction. People from each side of the Gemmi Pass walk up, or take the cable car to the top, so as not to miss the event.

It begins with a church service on the edge of the lake, followed by the running of the sheep, and then various competitions of strength between shepherds representing Leukerbad on the south side of the pass and Kandersteg on the north.

The Gemmi is one of the classic north-south alpine passes, connecting the Bernese Oberland with canton Valais. Goethe travelled over the pass in 1779 and said its barren isolation made him speechless.

Up until the late Middle Ages, the shepherds from Kandersteg and Leukerbad repeatedly went to battle over rights to the alpine pastures. To this day, ancient weapons still resurface on the pass.

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