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Mention Switzerland and most people think of mouthwatering Swiss chocolate, Gruyere and Emmental cheese, skiing in the Alps, off-shore banking and attractive cities like Lucerne, Geneva, Bern and Zurich.

Visitor pats cow in Martigny, Switzerland.
Visitor pats cow in Martigny, Switzerland.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Few people know that Valais, Switzerland, has a century-old tradition of cow fighting. Unlike Spanish bullfights, where the bull is killed, in Switzerland, the cow is the winner. Only queens are allowed to compete.

Alpine meadows

"Queens?" you ask. "Fights?" The explanation is simple. Herens and Eringers are Swiss breeds of cattle with genetic predispositions for combativeness. They instinctively challenge each other until the most dominant cow becomes the herd's queen or leader.

In spring, farmers decorate their cattle with tall flowered hats and enormous brass bells. The queen leads the procession, called the inalpe, to alpine pastures for the summer.

In fall, as the weather gets colder, farmers gradually move their herds down to lower pastures. Finally, they decorate their animals for the long parade (the desalpe) down the mountain to their warm barns for the winter.

After the descent of the cattle, the Grand Combat des Reines (The Great Battle of the Queens) is a big annual event. Each farmer enters his queen in fighting competitions against other queens of the canton (province).

Festival locations

Held in October, to coincide with the Comptoir de Martigny (a large fall fair in Valais), the competition takes place in the Roman amphitheatre in Martigny. Located just north of the Grand St. Bernard, Martigny is an hour's drive south and east of Lausanne, and only a few hours by car from other cities in Switzerland.

The queens are the winners of local competitions, held between April and October in Leuk, Chippis, Le Châble and Evolène, other towns in the Valais and Matterhorn Region. After the finals in Martigny, the canton championships are held in May, in the Valais town of Aproz, near Sion. The event is so popular that it attracts 10,000 spectators.

Two cows fight at Valais competition.
Two cows fight at Valais competition.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cowfighting championships are also social occasions for farmers and their families. Those who can't attend watch the finals on television or listen to Rhone FM, a radio station in Valais with a weekly cow fight program.

Spectators arrive early to get good seats, because the event draws thousands of people. The program divides more than 100 bovine competitors into five or six categories, based on weight, from light weight to heavyweight. Herens weigh between 550 and 750 kilograms. Entrants range from three to 11 years old.

Each cow has a big white number painted on her side. The program lists each cow's number, name, height in centimetres, name and address of the owner, as well as the names of the six men on the jury and the five rabatturs or referees.

Rabattur literally means "one who breaks up." Although they carry sticks, these men just bring the cows in and out of the ring and make sure that nothing goes out of control during the tournament.

Cow paws ground.
Cow paws ground.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Establishing hierarchy

Finalists in each category are chosen by the process of elimination. Cows from the first category are brought into the ring one at a time and released. Some immediately establish their territory and chase away any cow that dares to trespass. Others have no intention of fighting. They run away whenever the more dominant cow even looks at them. A few even crawl under the rope separating the competition area and the audience to avoid confrontation.

Occasionally, two cows stand facing each other, looking as if they just couldn't be bothered. A rabattur approaches, snapping his fingers, trying to make the cows more alert.

On the other hand, if more than one cow in the group wants to be queen, they face each other, paw the ground like mad bulls, dig their long horns into the earth as if they're trying to sharpen them, and then lock horns in a shoving match. Eventually, one of the contenders concedes defeat and runs away. According to the rules, when a cow turns away, she loses.

Clanging of Swiss cowbells

There's no problem following the action. Resounding clangs from brass bells suspended from their hand-decorated leather collars accent every move. There's an occasional intimidating moo.

Farmer encourages his cow during competition.
Farmer encourages his cow during competition.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cow fights are usually bloodless. But if you look carefully, you may see some battle scars. Each year, at least one cow breaks a horn or receives a cut. Veterinarians are always in attendance to treat any wounds.

Swiss farmers nervously watch to ensure that their prized animals aren't injured. After five minutes of head-butting, we saw one cow turn to approach the other side of her opponent. Immediately, both owners rushed in, grabbed their cows and separated them to prevent any injuries.

But the crowd didn't like this. They wanted to see a good battle, so they began whistling and shouting. It reminded us of the bullfights in Spain, where crowds shout and wave white handkerchiefs when they don't approve of what's going on in the ring.

During the day-long duels, the spectators are usually more animated than the competitors. One year, some animal rights activists from Austria came to protest the cow fights, but they withdrew their objections after watching the sedate competitions.

Farmer treats cow with rye bread.
Farmer treats cow with rye bread.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Swiss wine and sausages

By noon, the finalists in each category have been decided. Spectators, farmers and even the cows take time off for lunch. Vendors sell soft drinks, beer and wine from wagons. Booths serve piping hot, grilled wursts (sausages) and pork chops. Farmers reward their queens with slices of rye bread.

After lunch, the finalists of the elimination rounds compete to determine the queen in each category. Afterward, each of the queens vies for the title of Reine du Comptoir or "Queen of the Fair." Usually, only the queens from the top three categories compete, since the owners are not obligated to enter lightweight queens against heavyweight champions.

The Grand Champion wins a big brass bell. The owner is ecstatic because the value of his animal and her calves has dramatically increased.

After the Battle of the Queens, a Swiss farmer asked if we had cow fights in North America. We explained that most farmers remove the horns from their cattle, when they're young. They neither decorate the cows nor have cow fights. He shook his head regretfully, saying, "C'est d'hommage!" (What a pity!)


Switzerland Tourism: www.myswitzerland.com

More things to see & do in Switzerland:

Switzerland Hiking

Geneva, Valais and Vaud Switzerland Wine Tours

Switzerland Water Activities

Alphorns - Alpine Music from Switzerland

Best Attractions to Visit on Matterhorn and Lake Geneva Region Trip