For those who have witnessed the Almabtrieb, the spectacle is unforgettable: half Oktoberfest, half parade where the cows take center stage. They are, after all, the real stars here - making the traditional cattle drive from the high alpine pastures where they’ve grazed for the summer months, consuming the alpine grasses that aid the production of the coveted Heumilch (“hay milk”) that gives distinct flavor profiles to cheese and other foods from the alpage. The event is one born out of necessity: as the frigid temperatures of winter begin to set in the herd must retreat to the valley through the villages, often taking a distinct, historical route that generations of both farmers and cattle have taken before them.
The general procession is the same in most locations: the farmers will lead the cattle, and usually one or more cows are designated as the leads, the crown cow or Kranzrind. These animals secure the honor of wearing the most ornate flower headdresses, Fuikl, handwoven works of art made from local flowers, spruce and fir branches and wood shavings. Each decorative element on a single cow can represent up to 60 hours of meticulous work from a single farmhand.
Once into town, the party begins: local music fills the air, beer overflows from tents and local delicacy vendors line the streets. Dancing and cheering breaks out as the procession makes its way into town, celebrating a productive year in the alpine pasture and showing appreciation for the farmers carrying on the rich alpine farming and culinary traditions. It’s also a celebration of the town, as many areas have their own distinct breed of cow, and others incorporate their own unique traditions on the route (in Schönau on Lake Königssee in Germany, the cattle are loaded onto boats to be shuttled across the lake to continue the drive).
While these celebrations play out across towns all over the Alps, each with a strong local flavor, it becomes quite obvious that these celebrations are really about the Alps region as a whole, and the yearly celebrations are merely tiny dots on the long timeline of the alpine transhumance tradition - a timeline that captures much of human evolution as a whole. The term Alp in old High German referred to a “seasonal mountain pasture” and illustrates just how much farming and ranching dominated alpine life: evidence of cattle movement in the Alps dates back to roughly 3000 BC, and designated alpine pastures were common by the Bronze Age. Even “neutral” Switzerland’s history is littered with armed conflict over animal grazing rights.
Furthermore, these cattle movements have helped shape the land. The stunning landscapes that we associate with places like Austria and Switzerland, the lush green rolling hills surrounded by towering peaks, would likely cease to exist had it not been for thousands of years of cattle movement - by many estimates, everything below 6,000 feet in elevation would be dense, dark forest otherwise.
While the importance of the alpine farmer has decreased over time (the number of farmers in Switzerland decreased by nearly 75% across the 1900s), those that continue the practice are truly keeping alive one of the most ancient traditions that exists in the mountains. Those that celebrate do so out of an immense pride for their village, their cows and the products that they produce, and while distinct celebrations play out across Tyrol, Bavaria, and in the Engadine of Switzerland, Almabtrieb is truly a celebration of all of humanity in the Alps.