Which cows are we talking about?
The Hérens (or Eringer in German) cow is a traditional breed in the Swiss canton of Valais whose ancestors existed in the Rhône valley region as far back as 3,000BC. In summer you'll see them grazing on the mountain pastures throughout the Valais, particularly Nendaz, Nax/Mont Noble, Veysonnaz, the Val d'Anniviers and the Val d'Herens, plus Leukerbad on the other side of the Rhône valley.
They like a punch up?
Apparently so. According to the Swiss Federation of Hérens Breeders, Hérens cows have a highly combative temperament and display hierarchical behaviour which means they naturally lock horns as they journey to the high alpine pastures each spring, with the most dominant becoming herd chief – or queen cow – for the summer.
How good a fighter they are might be related to their genes. The federation says a cow's aptitude for fighting is genetic and can be passed down the generations.
This natural propensity for fighting led to the development of cow fighting competitions in the 1920s. Organized by breeders, they are known as ‘combats de reines' (battle of the queens) and attract large crowds.
Where can I see one?
A national competition is held over several weeks in April and May in different regional locations in the Valais (see the list here), culminating in a grand final in Aproz, near Nendaz, on May 6th-7th.
Other events take place year-round, including one in the snow in Leukerbad on March 18th, and another big competition in Martigny in October.
Organized cow fights attract large crowds. Photo: vacheherens.ch
What can I expect?
In the national competition cows are categorized by age and weight and put in an arena with their peers, each wearing a large cow bell. The cows then select their own natural opponents for one-on-one battles, during which they lock horns and push each other. The fight ends as soon as the defeated cow gives up and turns away.
The undefeated cow at the end of the day is declared ‘Queen' and presented with a decorative cow bell (of course). The regional series culminates in a grand final where thousands of spectators turn up to see the most dominant cow declared overall ‘Queen of the Queens', a hugely coveted title in the Valais.
For the breeder, owning a winning cow brings prestige and money, as the cow's value goes up.
Are the cows ok with it?
Unlike with Spanish bull fighting, Swiss cow fights are a natural process and are not about harming the animal, so injuries are very rare. What's more, the cows are not forced to fight so sometimes a face-off can end when a cow simply loses interest or can't be bothered to lock horns.
For an idea of what it's like, take a look at this video: