I was unprepared; from what I'd been told, the spectacle sounded far too amusing; it left me unprepared for what actually turned out to be an awe-inspiring event. But don't quote me on that. - call upon my nagging him for a quote.
"Is it true? Do you really have fighting cows in Switzerland?" They ask.
"Yes, of course we do", I say, thinking of the black beauties I've seen on pictures, their heads interlocked in a fight. Suddenly I realise that I don't know the slightest bit about them. I don't know anything about the breed, nor how the fights work, I didn't even know they were uniquely Swiss, local to the canton of Valais only.
So I promise my interrogators and myself some research. Field research - together with call I get to see a most amazing spectacle.
Saturday 2. June 2002 Murten, Switzerland
It's hot, blue sky, no clouds to break the sun's beating heat. Yet hundreds of people are making their way to the fighting ground - a bit of green surrounded by metal bars marks the ring. Imagine a Roman arena, without the tiers. The spectators surround the arena, the atmosphere: festival. There is beer, hot sausages, from somewhere I can smell raclette. On one "side" of the ring there is a small stage on which the jury is seated.
call and I find ourselves a convenient bench and stand on it so we can peek over the heads of the other onlookers. The ring defined by metal bars has an inner ring defined by rough string. The Master of Ceremonies now lists via a microphone the names of the cows which are about to enter the arena: "Argess, Mirette, Nina, Merlin, Diana, Lion, Tarzan, Rabea, Bijou, Bandit, Jona, Nora, Turbo, Berlin, Onix, Tirana, Nikita, Peggy, Mirador, Éclair, Coquette!"
While a long line of shiny black creatures with spray painted white numbers on their bodies are led into the ring by their owners, their huge bells filling the air with jingle, the MC informs us on
The breed and its history
Not just anything with two horns and a tail is a fighting cow.
Rippling muscles under shiny black, dark brown and sometimes slightly reddish fur, a set of impressive horns and a large bell around their necks are these cows' trademarks. Their willingness to determine the leading cow in impressive head to head fights makes it easy to believe in a close relationship to the bulls in the Provence or in Spain. This claim is also supported by many high ranking experts.
The breed's name is Eringerkuh in German or Vache d'Hérens in French. Colloquially they're called "Welsche" by the German speaking inhabitants of the upper Valais. They are exclusive to the middle and lower French speaking parts of the canton of Valais in Switzerland. They are relatively light cows, having been bred especially to survive on the steepest and most remote pastures in the high Alps. Compared to today's high performance (in milk and meat) cows their 500 to 700 kilos are rather meek. In the early 1900s they'd been between 250 and 300 kilos, a century before they weighed even less with only 150 to 180 kilos.
Only because their fighting action amazed and pleased their human owners did they survive. Their milk productivity is still way below that of high performance cows. Until recently the breeder's guidelines stated enhanced milk productivity as the major goal in breeding. Yet, stubborn and subversive as the Valais people often are they'd state a good milk bull on the papers, but let the fighter bull jump the cow.
By now all the cows have entered the arena. They're nicely distributed along the ring. call and I snicker. They look so tame, cow-like, so uninterested in fighting. Fighting cows - what a silly notion! The MC now asks the owners to untie their cows and then remove themselves from the main ring and go behind the cord ring. They do so. Rabatteurs - men knowledgeable in "cow psychology" equipped with sticks - enter the ring.
Most of the "placid" beauties are still standing around, acting uninterested. Only a few tear open the ground in threatening gestures with their hoofs. Some cows find themselves a fighting partner, even we as laypersons can guess that those are probably the ones that will fight out the finale later. Others are led to each other by the ushers. The rabatteurs receive their commands via the loudspeaker from the MC.
Le Combat de Reines - Queens' Combat
Number 17 and Number 29 have found each other. They approach threateningly, whirling up dust and mud and tufts of grass with their hoofs, locking each other in their gaze. All of a sudden their heads and horns are interlocked in combat. The rules of the fight are easy - the cow that gives up and walks away first has lost and is led out of the ring. While call and I had been sniggering before, we were now quite impressed. These cows have character, a stubborn eagerness to win, bravery, spirit! I was beginning to feel a great deal of respect for these animals.
There are fights twice a year, once in spring, once in fall. The contests are "never" outside of the Valais - the battle we saw in Murten was the first ever to be shown outside the valley canton.
The contending cows have to be healthy and for the fights in fall they have to be in calf. The animals fighting in spring have to have had their young ones within the past 15 months. Additionally they must have passed the their last three milk checks. Before they are admitted to the fights they have to pass a medical examination conducted by a vet. Sick cows or ones which show conspicuous behaviour are not accepted.
The categories are defined by age and weight. (If you really want to know the details here, /msg me, but it's rather complicated…)
Most fights are decided quite quickly. One cow loses balance and turns away. It is then attached to its tether again and led out of the ring by its owner. Tarzan (#17) and Mirador (#29) however seemed to have some personal grudge to work through. (Never mind the male names, the cows are all female!) They fought their way back and forth for the better part of a quarter of an hour, gaining and losing ground, the sun doing its part to exhaust them. After a while you couldn't help but take sides and cheer for one cow or the other. I desperately wanted Tarzan to win. She was the slimmer but definitely smarter one of the two in that she tried to have the advantage of the higher ground on her side. However the heat did its best to tire her and her flanks were heaving in exhaustion when she had to give way.
The crowd was cheering at that point and in many ways she was a winner when guided from the green, back into the shade and to the trough.
Eventually there are only two cows left who then make out the winner.
The prizes for the first six cows are - guess what - bells! Beautifully ornamented cow bells.
And what about animal rights and injuries?
What's shown in the fights is nothing more that a natural behaviour pattern of those cows. Originally when brought up onto an alp they'd establish a "pecking" order that way, defining a leading cow, an alpha animal so to speak. Even nowadays many of the combats de reines take place when the cows are driven up the Alps.
Also, the cows are not forced to fight. They are led to each other by the bell strap without any use of force. If a cow doesn't want to fight because it's just not her day, the jury recognizes that quickly and she's led out of the ring.
Even though the cows get very serious when fighting each other, injuries are very rare. Most of the time there is no blood to be seen and only very rarely is there a bloody nose or a slight cut. In very unfortunate circumstances a cow's horn may break off, signifying the end of the fight and the season for this cow. This however is very rare!
Until spring 2002 there have been doping tests to prevent owners from doping their beasts with aggression or performance enhancing drugs. In the meantime however there is no Swiss laboratory any more that conducts those tests. The regional vets are trying to come up with a replacement scheme, but I don't know if it's in use yet.
Sources: all information in this write up has been accumulated by the author in her field research, by talking to people and from a little brochure handed out to her during the field research.
Pictures of those lovely animals can be found on:
captions there courtesy of call :p