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A Celebration of Cows

A celebration of cows, La Fouly, Switzerland

Last weekend a friend and I headed over to La Fouly, Switzerland for the celebration of the Désalpe. We had both been looking forward to this autumn festival and so chose to ignore the ominous clouds as we drove round to Swiss Val Ferret.

Those who have walked the Tour du Mont Blanc may recognise La Fouly as the village that sits in picturesque Swiss farmland below the Grand Col Ferret. The Désalpe is the village fête held towards the end of September to mark the return of the cows from the high summer pastures or alpages. In La Fouly, as elsewhere in Switzerland, the herd from each alpage takes part in a parade through the village. The cows wear their huge cowbells and are carefully decorated with garlands of flowers and headdresses of pine branches. Historically herders would have spent the three months from mid June up with the animals away from the villages, so the return to the valley was a chance to catch up with neighbours and friends and a good excuse for a great party.

Last weekend there was a great village atmosphere as people from the valley gathered to watch and enjoy. There were stalls selling wood carvings, traditional crafts, fruit wines and liquors and local cheese was on sale by the kilo. In a nice comparison to the traditional British beer tent there were also a couple of ‘wine tents’. The local (cow) bell ringing group also took part in the procession. From one farmer’s tractor–pulled float they threw small brightly wrapped gifts into the crowd. My friend and I were intrigued by these shiny little parcels, could it be some kind of soft toffee? No, not sweets, cheese; what else? The cacophony of cowbells contrasted with the gentle tones of an alpenhorn ensemble. A group from nearby Nendaz danced traditional country dances to the accompaniment of brass instruments and accordions. A local sculptor wielded a chainsaw in a demonstration of chainsaw sculpture which when finished turned out to be a marmot on skis. The rain showers that passed over had no chance of dampening those kinds of spirits.

After a raclette lunch (more cheese) a skilful sheep dog demonstration took place followed by the dramatic highlight of the day: the ‘Combat des Genisses’. A large crowd gathered to watch as the heifers (genisse translates as heifer) belonging to different herds are brought into the ring two at a time in rounds followed by finals to contest the overall title. A close eye is kept on proceedings by a ‘rabateur’, effectively a referee. The prize was as usual a magnificently decorated leather collar and giant cowbell.

Dramatic cow standoff at La Fouly

This spectacle has derived from the natural behaviour of the cows who after over-wintering in family barns are brought together into a communal herd for the summer. The cows then re-establish the hierarchy and social structure within the herd where one particular cow is dominant. This has developed into a regional ‘sport’ of ‘Combat des Reines’ or Battle of the Queens. It is quite a part of local culture in the regions of France, Italy and Switzerland which used to make up Savoie. Whilst sometimes the contest is very dramatic with the two cows clashing horns, the cows are not hurt in these challenges and often they simply eye each other before one cow wanders off and is escorted from the ring.

All the heifers taking part in La Fouly were of the ‘Race d’Herens’ a Swiss breed from the Valais known to produce the most feisty cows. They are beautiful animals, black or dark brown, well muscled and absolutely solid. Each event was fun to watch and the whole day was wonderful people watching. All in all a great day out to celebrate a cowfest, the local culture and the change of the season.