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Germany's Ceremonial Mountain Cattle Drives

Ceremonial mountain cattle drives, Almabtrieb, have had a permanent place in the farming life of Europe's alpine regions for centuries. In many Austrian, Bavarian and Swiss villages during the last golden days of summer and early autumn processions of festively decorated cows create their own cow bell symphonies as they come down from their summer pastures, high up on the mountains and make their way to winter quarters.

In Bavaria, accompanied by traditional music and villagers wearing Tracht, the historic regional dress of Lederhosen for men and Dirndls for women, cattle from different herds follow garlanded lead cows, one per herd, to the Scheidplatz, literally "parting place", where they are claimed by their farmers.

There is not enough meadow land available in the mountain valleys to both feed the cattle and grow hay for the winter, so for generations they have been driven up to the Alpine pastures as soon as these are free from snow.

This is usually during June, and there they spend the summer months feasting on meadow grass, its flowers and mountain herbs increasing the quality of their milk, while the terrain and mountain air has a positive effect on their health and fitness.

At the same time it is important the mountain ecosystem grass is "mowed", as if it remains long winter snow will cling and the weight can pull out the entire plant, including roots, leading to the erosion of the mountain-side.

An average farmer will have several huts at different altitudes, and these may have small hay fields alongside for growing additional winter fodder, while the cattle live in fenced off areas which are gradually moved around to fresh grazing.

However despite the fencing there are nearly always some who fall off the grassy slopes.

Milked twice a day, with a mobile milking parlor, on the lower levels their milk is taken down to the village, while at higher levels it is often turned into cheese, such as the famous Allgaeuer Bergkaese, mountain cheese from the Allgaeu region of Bavaria.

Although the prospect of early snow can bring the date forward, the arrival of summer's last days normally herald the time to prepare the cows for the journey down from their alpine pastures.

For the Almabtrieb, which means "Drive from the mountain pasture", cattle grazing in different areas are rounded up to be returned to the valley, and every year cow herders and milkmaids spend days making beautiful headdresses from small evergreen branches, flowers, garlands, ribbons, bells and wooden ornaments, colored wooden rosettes, shavings and crosses, to decorate them.

Each region has a different style and the cows are fitted with the headdresses the day before the drive, the only exception is if there has been a fatal accident during the summer or a death in the family, then that farmer does not take part in the decorating custom that year.

In some areas as the cows are driven towards their winter stalls the milkmaids have a traditional call:

"In God's name move on, my cow, in health and joy; St. Anthony will herd you!".

A blessing which is repeated three times along with the Lord's Prayer.

St. Anthony is a patron saint of animals, harvests and pig farmers amongst other things, and pigs are often taken up to the cheese making areas as they eat, and benefit from, the whey and other by-products from cheese making which if left as waste would damage the ecosystem.

The Almabtrieb is followed by the ceremonial Viehscheid, "cattle separation", and village 'Folk Fair' festivities with Bavarian brass bands, beer, food, dancing, traditional farmers markets and displays from blacksmiths, wood carvers and other artisans.

And these celebrations will continue well into the alpine night.

There is one cattle-drive which is quite different from all the others because, after the cattle have come down from their summer stay in the Berchtesgaden mountains, they must cross a lake. Lake Koenigssee.

With no road around it the cows are driven onto large flat bottomed transport vessels, Landauer transport, by the cow herders, who then row them across the water, and it is not until they have reached the other side that they are decorated with their garlands and bells so celebrations can begin.

Taking place in October this is the final Almabtrieb of the year. In the previous weeks all the other cattle which had spent months grazing on lush alpine pastures will have been safely transported back to their winter quarters, and there they will stay until next summer when the last trace of snow has disappeared from the mountains.

All photographs courtesy Berchtesgadener Land Tourismus GmbH.

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