What exactly is the alpine descent or désalpe?
It is the seasonal droving of grazing livestock from high mountain summer pastures to the low valley regions before winter sets in. In German it is known as Alpwirtschaft and in French Désalpage or Désalpe. It is a traditional farming practice thought to date back as far as 3000 BCE, and Alpine farmers in Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and southern Germany still do it.
- Fighting cows, flower-eating goats: The Crans-Montana désalpe (Le News 22.09.2014)
- The désalpe – she’ll be thundering down the mountain (Le News 10.09.2014)
In Switzerland however, it was not always the happy festive affair that it is now. Conflicts over alpine meadow ownership and grazing rights sparked several wars. A a cow related conflict sparked the 1315 battle of Morgarten. After a dispute over access to pastures, a group from the canton of Schwyz raided the Habsburg-protected Einsiedeln Abbey. This sparked the House of Habsburg into action and they decided to invade, having already had their eye on the nearby Gotthard Pass – the shortest route to Italy.
After a fierce battle it was clear the tiny Swiss confederation – only Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden were part of it at that stage, had crushed the mighty Austrians, so ensuring that Swiss cows could continue to graze the region’s alpine pastures.
Today Switzerland has around 700,000 cows, 587,00 of which are milking cows, and 400,000 sheep. Many of these animals must make the annual march down from high altitude pastures before the winter snow arrives.
Here is a selection of désalpes taking place this autumn:
Désalpe in St. Cergue – 3 October 2015
The désalpe in Saint-Cergue, Vaud, is one of the most impressive in the country. Around 700 cows, goats, donkeys and dogs walk with their shepherds through the village centre.
The usual colourful flowers adorn the cows, large bells hang around their necks and farmers wear traditional costumes. The spectacle includes whip cracking, flag swinging, alphorn demonstrations and of course cheese. Lots of it.
Grimentz Eringer cow parade – 26 September 2015
The distinctive Eringer cows that spend the summer grazing on Alp Moiry descend every September via Grimentz, a pretty traditional Valaisan village in the Val d’Anniviers perched 1,570 metres up.
These sturdy black cows produce a much sought after cheese, made distinctive by their diet of mountain grass and herbs. This cheese can be tasted at the festival as you watch the cows parade by.
- 5 best mountain spas in French-speaking Switzerland (Le News 26.02.15)
Charmey Désalpe – 26 September 2015
The désalpe in Charmey in the canton of Fribourg, not far from the hilltop town of Gruyère is a highly popular event known for striking floral arrangements. The milk from these cows is used to make world famous Gruyère cheese. Charmey is also home to an excellent spa.
Crans-Montana Désalpe – 19 September 2015
The désalpes across the region are country-side spectacles that are difficult to grow tired of. Over the years some have changed, not only because things are apt to change but also because the towns and villages that have traditionally hosted them have realized that they offer opportunities to turn a few pennies by selling local produce and sometimes not such local produce.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, the désalpes are a living tradition and need to be kept alive for future generations. Lately, though, some of them have become just a tad too commercial. The Crans-Montana désalpe is not one of these. The delight on the faces of farmers and townsfolk alike as the farmers and their livestock made their way through the town was genuine and palpable. These were friends and families getting together and anticipating time together in the winter after a tough summer working up in the alpine pastures…read more.
These four are by no means the only désalpes in Suisse Romande. Most villages with a mountain backdrop and cows have one. For example the commune Blonay, below Les Pleiades near Vevey and Montreux also has one on 26 September 2015.