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EXPLAINED: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?
Swiss love their cows. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Cows are important in Switzerland, so much so that knowing their names might help you get a Swiss passport. The Local's Cow-respondent Helena Bachmann tries to explain why the Swiss have such as a legen-dairy relationship with their Bovine friends.

On June 18th, the Tribune de Genève newspaper ran a story about how a cow named “Mouette” was buried on the meadow in the canton of Vaud, right on the pasture where she grazed and on which she died.

Some may question why this story, though undoubtedly moo-ving, made news in the first place. Are cows really that important in Switzerland?

After all, cows aren’t “cute” and furry like bunnies and kittens – and you can’t easily pet them or scratch their ears.

The answer is simple: Swiss people love cows. Maybe it’s because cows are such a big part of Switzerland’s landscape.

Or perhaps the reason is that their milk is an essential ingredient for the other things that Swiss love: cheese and chocolate. (Of course, they  also love their wine, but it has nothing to do with cows, so that’s a story for another time).

Just how much do the Swiss love their cheese and chocolate?

Statistics show that each year they consume, on average, 21 kilos of the 450 varieties of cheese they produce.

READ MORE: 15 facts you may not have known about Swiss cheese

Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

As for chocolate, Switzerland produces annually about 180 tonnes, and its consumption is 8.8 kilo per person per year. It may not seem like much in comparison to cheese, but the Swiss are still world champions in this category, according to EU site, Statista.

Some sources, however, claim the number is much higher — 30 pounds (over 13 kilos) per year, which, based on my own consumption experience, is a more credible figure.

READ MORE: 15 facts you may not have known about Swiss cheese

But now back to cows.

Not surprisingly, given the Swiss’ penchant for keeping statistics, we know exactly how many cows there are in Switzerland: approximately 1.5 million.

And we also know what names are most popular among bovines. With all due respect to the deceased Mouette, her name didn’t make it to the top five, which are Fiona, Diana, Bella, Bianca and Nina. 

Now, you may think this is trivial knowledge, but in fact it is not.

An acquaintance who was applying for Swiss citizenship in a small village in Vaud was asked by the naturalisation panel if she knew the names of the cows in her community. Fortunately, she happened to know her neighbour’s two, Jessie and Bianca, so she became a proud owner of a Swiss passport.

All this goes to say that cows are iconic creatures in Switzerland, not in the same way as in India, but they still have a special place in Swiss lives and news media.

The article about Mouette’s burial is not unique in this sense.

A few years ago, there was a story about Switzerland’s military flying their helicopters over to France to “steal” water from a French lake in order to quench the thirst of some 20,000 cows suffering from dehydration during an especially hot summer.

There was apparently not enough water in Swiss lakes to meet the demand.

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The incident spurred a bit of an outrage in France, where a newspaper claimed that “to save its cows, Switzerland steals water from France”.

That headline says it all: while neutral Switzerland is not in a habit of sending its armed forces abroad, the cows’ well-being was considered a good enough reason to peruse another country’s airspace — and its lake.

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Unlike many other nations which don’t care as much about either cows or direct democracy, the Swiss held a referendum in 2018, pushed by a pro-cow group — yes, there really is such a thing —on whether subsidies should be given to farmers  who don’t dehorn their cows. 

It was rejected at the polls because the Swiss listened to the government’s argument that horned cows are dangerous for their unhorned comrades.

In other words, voters opted to prevent bullying among cows.

And there was also the story of a young Swiss farmer was accused of sexual abusing one of his cows. While this incident was of course not particularly “Swiss” per se, perhaps its treatment in the local press was. When reporting about the case, newspapers published a photo, pixilating the perpetrator’s face but also the cow’s, to protect the identity of both the guilty and innocent parties — because privacy laws in Switzerland are very strong.

While the Swiss are fond of cows, interaction between the two doesn’t always go smoothly, with occasional reports of cows attacking hikers on mountain trails.

Though this has never happened to me, I did have a scary experience once while driving in the mountains (other than accidentally stepping into cow dung).

This happened on Mont-Tendre in Vaud, where I was driving in my new brand car which I bought just the day before.

On a narrow mountain road (which was nevertheless paved, because this is Switzerland), a cow appeared. She positioned herself in the middle of the road, started at me menacingly and wouldn’t budge.

I couldn’t go back as there were several cars behind me. And I couldn’t go straight either, as the cow took up the whole road.

We all sat there waiting for the cow to make a move to the left or right, so that we could all go forward.

After about 10 minutes, she finally made a step toward the edge of the road. I started to slowly drive past her when she suddenly back-ended the side of my car, denting  the door

Photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN / AFP

I could have sworn she did it intentionally, and she even smirked at me.

I called her a few choice names, none of which was, I am sure, her actual name.

The next day I went to my insurance agency to fill out paperwork for the damage done to my two-day-old car. I filled out the information describing what exactly happened. I was sure the agent would look at me, roll his eyes, and think I was crazy.

But no. He read the form and said: “A cow attacked your car because you were on her territory? That’s normal in Switzerland”. (Apparently it’s also normal when goats do it).

So the moral here is: don’t be surprised if you see bovines dominating Switzerland’s news.

You just need to accept that the Swiss and their cows really do go hand-in-hoof.


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