Why the Swiss are having a referendum about cow horns this weekend

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Why the Swiss are having a referendum about cow horns this weekend
A Swiss Brown Cow with horns. File photo: Depositphotos"

It's been eight years in the making but Switzerland is finally set to vote this Sunday on the issue of cow (and goat) horns.


If you want to see evidence of Swiss direct democracy at work, look no further than the story of the farmer Armin Capaul.

A one-man media phenomenon, 67-year-old Capaul is almost single-handedly responsible for the fact that millions of Swiss voters will this weekend cast their ballots on the issue of whether Swiss farmers who do not dehorn their cows and goats should be granted subsidies to cover the additional associated costs.

Armin Capaul, the campaign's organiser. Photo: Franziska Frutiger.

The farmer’s lengthy campaign began way back in 2010 with a letter to the Federal Office of Agriculture. When there was no action from authorities, he launched a popular initiative in 2014 and collected the 100,000 signatures necessary to trigger a referendum on the issue.

Along the way there have been thousands of media reports in Switzerland as well as plenty of media interest from places as far away as Laos and the Dominican Republic.

For Capaul himself, originally from the canton of Graubünden but now based in Jura, it is all a little hard to believe.

“I never thought I would be sitting here,” he said during a recent press conference held in the media centre of the Swiss parliament in Bern.

“I only wanted to give the cows and goats a voice,” he said.

Because for Capaul – who, with his long beard and array of woollen caps, could come from Alpine central casting – the so-called cow horn initiative is about dignity for the animals.

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Estimates on the number of cows with horns in Switzerland range from 10 percent to 25 percent (although some breeds are genetically hornless).

But backers of the current initiative argue the organs play a role in the metabolism, hygiene and communication of the animals.

The cow horn initiative website also cites a University of Bern study which suggested many calves experience long-term negative effects after dehorning – an operation carried out when calves are young and conducted using an iron heated to around 700C.

But for farmers, the decision not to dehorn their cattle comes at an economic cost: cows with horns need more space and are more labour intensive for farmers.

This is where the subsidies come in. Rather than calling for a ban on the dehorning of the animals, Capaul and his fellow campaigners want to ensure farmers do not have to make an economic choice at the moment of deciding whether to carry out the procedure.

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They want authorities to chip in the estimated 15 million francs required to cover the additional expenses for farmers who don’t dehorn – money which would come from an overall agricultural budget of three billion Swiss francs.

However, the Swiss government officially opposes the initiative. It argues cows with horns are more dangerous both for other animals and for animal handlers, meaning that they would require more space in stalls.

Agriculture minister Johann Schneider-Ammann even described the initiative as an “own goal” for animal rights.

While the government promotes free-range barns where animals can move around, cows with horns would have to be placed in barns with individual pens for safety reasons, the minister said.

Capaul's initiative has won support from animal protection groups, the organic food association Bio Suisse and ProSpecieRara, which fights for genetic diversity. Meanwhile the powerful Swiss Farmers Union (SBV) has told members they have a free vote on the issue.

Unusually for Switzerland, support for the initiative is pretty even on both sides of the political divide. But despite strong support for the initiative in early polling, the gap has narrowed. A recent poll by gfs Bern showed support for the subsidies at 49 percent with 46 percent against.

Meanwhile, for Capaul it remains all about the animals. They will be the losers if the initiative is rejected at the ballot boxes, he says.


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