The return of the cows from their summer pastures in the mountains is the cause of much celebration in rural Bavaria.
Bavaria may be the home of BMW and Audi, but there are still some age-old rural traditions that surprise even visitors from other parts of Germany. One of which is the annual festival which celebrates the return of the prodigal cows, the Viehscheid. Because here the cows really do come home, every autumn, after having spent their summers up in the mountains.
The leading cow is adorned with flowers and spruce
The Viehscheid (and its close partner the Almabtrieb) are part and parcel of the same thing, and both are particularly celebrated in the alpine region of the Allgäu. At the beginning of the summer, when the vegetation has really started to grow up in the mountains, cattle are herded up into high alpine pastures, where the herbal grasses are particularly good for their physical condition. Here they’ll be looked after by a cowherd or team of cowherds and their dogs, who’ll continue to do all the daily milking, fence mending etc necessary, and sometimes also offer milk, cheese and other forms of refreshment to passing walkers. This tradition of almost nomadic pastoralism, still very widespread in eastern Europe, involves around 50,000 cows in Germany.
Come the end of September, when it starts to get colder, the herdsmen bring them down again (the Almabtrieb). To celebrate that there were no cattle injuries or losses during their stay high up in the mountains, the leading cow is adorned with flowers, spruce, and sometimes a cross or mirror to deflect evil spirits. All the cows wear big cowbells, polished especially for this occasion. Upon arrival at the village green, the cows are separated from each other (the Viehscheid), the herdsman calls out the name of the owners and each owner takes care of his cows, presumably grateful that his investment has been returned, safe and sound, and hopefully considerably fatter.
There is always a big party when the cows come home, with a large beer-tent, an orchestra playing, etc. One of the specialities served will be the Hirtenkäse, a distinctive cow’s cheese from the milk of the cows who participated in the Almabtrieb.
And, like many rural rituals, this is an excuse for romantic reunions; after a long hot summer in the mountains, the herdsmen are usually desperate to talk to anything female that doesn’t moo or have hooves.
Overview of Viehscheid dates (site in German only).