The end of summer is nigh, and in some parts of Switzerland, it is nigher than in others. Go up into the mountains and the air is getting very crisp already. Time to bring the animals in from their summer pastures. And while in August, you still have to wait a while for the cows to come home, in the canton of Wallis (Valais), the sheep that roam the high meadows overlooking the Aletsch glacier are ready to come down from the mountain meadows.
That’s actually entirely untrue. The sheep are not ready to do anything, but their owners believe that the last weekend of August is a good time to have them all rounded up and marched down. And for that purpose, they employ a dozen or so young men who spend a few days rounding up the animals before they bring them to a centuries-old sorting pen on the Belalp (yes, that’s bel alp, as in “beautiful alpine meadow”), high on a mountain slope above the charming little town of Blatten. The place where the sheep roam is so remote and high up (almost 10,000 feet) that wolves and bear can’t find them and they are left entirely on their own for the summer. Small wonder that the official march down the mountain sometimes becomes a bit chaotic – the sheep are borderline feral. This time around, at one point some 10 animals near the end of their march changed their minds, turned around and charged headlong into the procession that followed them, increasing the already impressive bleating and bell-clanging noise level on the Belalp.
Watching animals come down the mountain at the end of summer is a spectator sport in Switzerland, one that I have embraced with abandon. The Alpabzug (or Alpabgang, or Transhumance, or Désalpe) is a rural celebration with a lot of pageantry that is cherished by Swiss people young and old and, increasingly, by visitors from all over. But most Alpabzüge are with cows, with a few goats thrown in for good measure, or a chicken or two. The sheep of the Belalp don’t see quite as many onlookers, even if it feels a bit crowded up there, but that’s simply because there isn’t a lot of room.
There is something timeless and poetic about the sheep’s homecoming. The local darlings are the Walliser Schwarznasen – Valais Blacknose sheep. So much so that to a farmer in these parts, a sheep (“Schaf”) is a Blacknose; every other four-legged woolly animal is a Mutte. And while there is a sort of sheep that’s actually called that, the word is often used to dismiss ‘those others’ as not worthy of the name sheep.
So Sheep and Mutten, once gathered at the end of their alpine trek, eventually make their way to the Färricha, a complex of pens made with local stones, that becomes the scene of sheep sorting the next morning. The sheep, several hundred of them, overnight in the main pen until, a few hours after sunrise, the sorting begins.
To attend the sorting and counting of the sheep, a process whereby the sheep owners pull, push, jump, run and dive for their sheep in the bleating melee, one has to get up early to get on the gondola and walk another 20 minutes or so, but it is the best thing about the whole affair: before the sorting starts, the young men who are paid by the owners to get the sheep down line up on the wall of the main pen, say a prayer plus a few solemn words and then join the ovine rodeo. And as I mentioned, the sheep are often in no mood to cooperate. So some owners who appear to be cursed with particularly ornery sheep, do find themselves wrestling each sheep into their smaller pen, to get a full account. And on occasion, a sheep may decide it has other ideas – it’s great fun to watch, even if it is all over in an hour or so. Then, mass is celebrated under the blue sky and everyone goes home after that. There is a brilliant documentary about the sheep here. It’s in German and Walliserdeutsch, but the images are breathtaking, and the theme refers back to the timeless aspect of the Schafscheid, the sheep sorting: one of the men who brings down the sheep explains that that this has been done for hundreds of years, and that he wants to see it continued for some hundreds more. And the fact that the sheep are practically uneconomical (the wool sells for pennies, the meat’s not all that great, apparently) matters not at all. A veritable glow comes over this sheep wrangler’s face when he earnestly and rhetorically asks: have you ever seen a more beautiful sheep?