Switzerland / Valais – Fighting Beef

A black cow approaches Marcel leaned on the pasture’s fence. Tulipe weighs more than half a tone and her square head is adorned with impressive horns. Demanding to be caressed, the animal moves its mouth under the shepherd’s hand. I can’t believe that this cow is able to fight furiously…

Tulipe has recently won herself the position of a leader in her native herd. “It is natural” Marcel explains. The Alpine pasture cows often take up fight, especially these of Hérens breed having quite a long, thick and usually black fur. They were bred at the end of the 19th century in one of the valleys of Valais/Wallis canton. This breed proved particularly immune to harsh conditions of these high mountain pastures. And particularly warred. What do they fight for? For grass! On these pastures, poor in fodder and surrounded with snow capped 4000 m peaks, this means survival. That is why Tulipe reacts with excitement whenever an unknown female cow appears. Only the alpha cows fight. The defeated one walks away with its herd, having to graze on poorer grass.

On a meadow and on arena 
On enclosed pastures it is rather unlikely to meet an unknown herd. Yet, for almost one hundred years, in search of the best genes, the Valais breeders have been putting their favourites to a warfare test. Every year, between March and October in various towns of the canton, competitions (Combat de Reines) are held. The most prestigious ones are in May and at the end of the season in October. The winner is granted the title of a queen. And because they are all divided into categories, depending on weight and age, there are several queens. From among them the main champion is chosen – the queen of queens. The prize is a commemorative bell, but the gained prestige brings substantial economic profits. The value of the honoured winner equals value of a car. The value of her offspring also rises.

Arena
The battle ground looks like a gladiators’ arena. Especially in Martigny, where cow fights are organized in a Roman amphitheatre. The contestants stand around, marked with white paint. Each has its number and a category. The excited cows nervously dig in the ground with their hooves and rub their horns against the poles to which they have been fastened. Foam runs from their mouths as they lower their heads. Their owners accompany them all the time, as if trainers in boxing corners. They give bread to their pupils, pat them and softly speak to them. “This is very important” Marcel explains. “Tulipe is under big stress.” When the time of her fight comes, Marcel runs with her through the amphitheatre’s gate. He is not allowed to stay on arena, so he circles the enclosure to be as near as possible. At the same time 14 to 16 other cows are let in. They pick their pairs themselves. The jury sitting on the gallery watch and make the ranks. On arena there are the so called referees together with the cows. Their task is to split the cows if they entangle dangerously and not to allow two cows attack one. Splitting fighting cows requires much effort, because even if caught by their nostrils, they still press at each other.

Hand in hand
Each cow has a traditional bell on its neck. Because each of them has a slightly different sound, even in fog the owner would recognize his pupil without mistake. A broad leather belt on the cow’s neck is adorned with Alpine motifs, that is the Matterhorn, gentians, edelweisses and mandatory flags – of the Federation, canton and the town of the owner. The fight is nothing like corrida. It is rather wrestling. Cows run at each other, bowing their heads, they crash with their massive foreheads and attempt to push back the other one. Sometimes a fight finishes instantly. The weaker cow simply gives up. At other times, when their strength is comparable, the duel becomes far too long. If, during the fight, a cow’s horn slips under the belt of the adversary, and the cow is unable to remove it herself, the referees help. Horns are very precious. What is more, the contestants are insured in case of losing them! „Such injury is very painful. It is as if somebody torn your fingernail off! Treatment is long and expensive.” Fortunately it happens very rarely.

With or without the bell
In each category six cows are rewarded. After the final fights, their owners receive bells with a commemorative sign. And then they run around the arena with their pupil, making an honorary lap. The audience cheer. In Martigny there are several thousand spectators! When the cows leave the arena, a time comes to either drown sorrows or celebrate the victory. Of course with a Schnaps! This is done in a close family and friends circle. But no one can forget about the heroine of the day. She comes back to her barn tenderly cared for and there she receives special treatment. Her diet is enriched with vitamins and the owner looks after her, like after a purebred horse. The pride of a mount’s owner is the mane. The pride of a cow’s owner are the horns. They should have a beautiful line and not too sharp endings! They must delight, but they mustn’t wound other cows during a fight. This time Tulipe hasn’t won the prize. Marcel took her from the arena defeated. He consoled her by patting on a hairy head. “You are young. Every year you are getting better. Your great moment will also come!”

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