Young shepherds on the Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

29 Aug. 2018 · Summer Activities | Culture

Two half-pint herders and their summer on the Alpe Bärgunt

Titus Moosbrugger (11) and Magnus Huber (12) are off up the Alpe Bärgunt again. The reason? To keep watch over Kleinwalsertal’s largest herd of 280 livestock.

Last summer, most city children went wild for Pokémon-Go and spent their days hunting virtual monsters. In the Walser mountains, however, a handful of children and young people spent their summer holidays working as herders. It’s Titus’ fourth summer as a halfpint herdsman, and Magnus’ third. Nüüs accompanied the two of them over the summer to find out why they are so passionate about life in the Alps, and so ready to give up their home comforts for the simplicity of life in the mountains.

Cows on the Hochalpe | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

It’s a cool, misty Saturday morning in the middle of June when our junior herders meet their full-grown counterpartWolfgang Ott, for this summer’s first joint trip to the Bärgunthütte (1,408 m). Late snow and changeable weather have somewhat delayed the start of the Alpine summer. But today, it’s arrived. Most of their summer wards are taken from the Allgäu lowlands to Kleinwalsertal in large cattle transporters. From the car park in Baad, farmers and their helpers herd the animals towards the Bärgunthütte, the first stop of their summer holidays. There, they are placed under the watchful eye of Wolfgang and his team. Titus, Magnus, Wolfgang's sons Elias and Simon, and his nephew Martin, make their final preparations. 

The sound of the bells hurries the first herd forward, and the young shepherds get into position, equipped with their sticks. One herd after another reaches the pastures below the Bärgunthütte. There’s a touch of unrest in the air: the animals have to get used to being part of a large herd with many new faces, and some are not yet accustomed to eating fresh grass. But the herders also look slightly tense. They don’t yet know their protegés and their peculiarities, with the result that Titus nearly falls into a stream as he heads off a runaway.

Shepherds on the Hochalpe Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Wolfgang (49) is a rock amid the maelstrom. The Alpe Bärgunt has been his passion for 28 years. He is the third generation of a herding family. His gaze has been trained from childhood onwards, and he has developed a innate feel for the animals and their different characters. He knows many of the recent arrivals from last summer. The Alpe Bärgunt is one of the oldest and largest pastures in Vorarlberg. This extensive Alpine area was first documented 500 years ago; its high pastures extend almost to the door of the Widdersteinhütte (2,009m).

Alpine farming has been the most important supply source for the Walser since they settled in Kleinwalsertal in the 13th century. Ancient chronicles speak of the mountains as “the farmers’ bread basket”. As tourism began to increase in the 1950s, Alpine farming was replaced as the most important economic driver and provider of employment. Many Alpine farms were disbanded, partly because it was increasingly
difficult to find young people willing to take on the hard work in the mountains. In 1945, there were still 50 farms in Kleinwalsertal; today this number is down to 35. The livestock population has also changed considerably, and the number of dairy cows has declined significantly. For Wolfgang, however, there was never an alternative. For him, being outdoors all year round, living in tune with nature, and looking after the animals entrusted to him is pure happiness. And he is all the more delighted that a new generation of cattle herders is growing up in the shape of Magnus and Titus, as well as members of his own family.

Hochalpe Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

It’s still two weeks until the long-awaited start of the summer holidays. When the day finally comes, the half-pint herdsmen arrive at the Bärgunthütte with their toothbrushes, a sturdy pair of boots, and some warm clothes. They sleep on mattresses on the floor. Equipped with running water and electricity, it is without a doubt the more comfortable of their overnight destinations, but for Magnus and Titus the highlight of the summer is the four weeks they spend on the Hochalp at approximately 2,000 metres, from the end of July to the end of August. Several times during the summer, the herd moves to fresh pastures higher up the mountain. As soon as they get used to the terrain, it is pure recovery time for the cattle, as the change in air makes them fitter and more robust, and strengthens their immune 

The fitness of the cattle herders also improves continuously. As long as the animals are on the meadows of the Mittelalpe, they have to get up at 6.00 am every morning and climb their way up from the Bärgunthütte to the cattle. That’s quite a climb in one day. Rain or shine, they spend the whole day with the herd. They make sure that no animals are lost or injured, check the fences, or lend a
hand when shrubs, small trees, or other plants have to be removed from the Alpine meadows to ensure their safety and useability.

Young shepherds on the Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

The idyllic Hochalpe Bärgunt

Finally, on the last Sunday in July, it's time. They’re moving to the Hochalp. It is a hot summer day. By noon, dark clouds are gathering, but still they don’t leave until Title: “For me there was never an alternative. Being outdoors all year round, living in tune with nature, and looking after the animals entrusted to me is pure happiness.” Wolfgang Ott, cattle herder late afternoon, because driving the whole herd from the Mittelalp to the Hochalp requires numerous helpers. The route leads through some difficult terrain, which is also quite demanding for some hikers, especially the so-called “gesprengte Wegle” (“blasted path”). The rocky, narrow path with threateningly steep rock faces on either side does not allow for errors. Around 25 helpers, friends, family and neighbours have gathered together as, on the stroke of four o’ clock, the first raindrops start to fall. While the cattle are still being gathered from remote slopes in all directions, a group of Haflingers takes off at a gallop.

Within a very short time, they leave the steep ascent behind them, and seem to disappear into the expanse of the high mountains. Gradually, the cattle herd also begins to move. Of their own accord, the first animals begin to move briskly forwards. The group follows, and they make pretty quick progress. The summer storm isn’t holding back either: a never-ending downpour is accompanied by thunder and lightning.
Titus is on the way with one of the first groups. But his hope of reaching the hut on the Hochalp and drying off disappears relatively quickly when he discovers that one of the pasture fences has given way, and that the animals are continuing towards the Widdersteinhütte. Before he can get warm and dry in the hut, the missing animals must be rounded up and the fence fixed. 

Young shepherds on the Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

The animals and their herders will now spend four weeks on the highest point of the Alpine Bärgunt region. The young herders love their time on the Hochalp. They find it more relaxing than the Mittelalp. The small, cosy cottage just below the Große Widderstein isn’t very big; there’s a shared living room, one bedroom, and the dormitory they all share. But they seem to have everything they need. When asked if they miss anything when they’re up here, the only reply is a quizzical eyebrow and a mischievous smile.

They seem to enjoy the simplicity of life, based on the rhythm of the animals and nature - without television, Internet, or mobile phones. Warm showers depend on the solar panels, so sometimes there’s no hot water when you’re looking forward to it the most, for example after a rainy day out on the pastures. There have also been summers where the solar panels and the toilet have both given up the ghost entirely, and ingenious alternatives had to be found.

Young shepherd with cattle | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

On the Hochalp, Wolfgang’s team gets support from Marion Edlinger and her Border collie, Lea. While Marion is concerned mainly with domestic affairs, Lea is a trained sheepdog, and actively supports the herders in their work. At 7.00 am, it is still quiet. Only Wolfgang stands in front of the hut, using his binoculars to peer at the herd, which has spread out over the surrounding slopes. It is a mystical morning. It has rained through the night, and the first rays of sunshine are breaking slowly through the wisps of fog, while the imposing Widderstein gradually appears in the background. For the boys, the day starts at 7:30 am. Before breakfast, they bring the two dairy cows, Bella and Frieda, in for milking.

While Magnus and Titus help in the barn and clean the milking equipment, Simon lovingly tends a lame animal resting in front of the hut, while Martin goes out on the first round. At regular intervals, the herders set out to count the livestock and look for any evidence of suspicious activity. Over time, they learn what to look out for, becoming more independent every day. They take responsibility for the tasks entrusted to them, make their own decisions, and know that the head herder is relying on them. Wolfgang feels a real sense of propriety for all the animals in his care, and bringing them back down into the valley in good health is a matter close to his heart

Breakfast on the Hochalpe | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

A large part of the popular mountain tour around the Widderstein runs through the pastureland of the Alpe Bärgunt. Hikers who pass by can rest for a moment in front of the hut, enjoy the imposing views, and recharge their batteries with a drink, or yoghurt that Marion makes from the fresh milk. Marion, also more than happy to be outside herding, is responsible for the catering. This is a treat for the men on the Hochalp; even though the kitchen is small and the utensils simple, every evening she conjures up a hearty meal to round off a strenuous day. Her Alpine tacos are a firm favourite. After their evening
meal, Titus and Magnus help with the washing up. Sometimes they have a game of yahtzee, but mostly they’re so tired that when night falls they are more than happy to crawl under the covers. 

Weather permitting, they can also enjoy a quick dip in the Hochalpsee between rounds. It has to be a really hot summer though. Instead, in mid-August there is a short cold snap, a volatile situation for both the cattle and their herders. The snow soon melts again, but while it lasts the steep slopes can become dangerous slippery for the animals. It is at moment like this that the young herders benefit from Wolfgang's
decades of experience. Cattle-driving, especially under such adverse conditions, has to be learnt, and the herders also need a good dose of intuition when choosing which path to take, and where to position themselves to drive the animals safely from one place to another. The cut-off date for the move back to the lower camp is August 24, St. Bartholomew’s Day, so on the penultimate Sunday in August, the entire team of helpers will once again meet up to drive the animals back to the Mittelalpe

Young shepherds on the Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

The grand finale - the “Alpabtrieb”

The summer holidays are drawing to a close. A week before they are due back at school, Titus and Magnus return home and gradually start getting used to life in the valley again. After a long soak in the bath and some prolonged chilling on the sofa, their mothers decide that it’s high time for a visit to the barber. Wolfgang's Alpine beard, however, will survive at least until the “Alpabtrieb” (the day on which the cattle are driven back down the mountain) on 19 September. The cattle are now back grazing on the pastures near the Bärgunthütte. On the day before the Alpabtrieb, all the helpers gather together again. Their excitement about the upcoming ritual is palpable. 

It goes without saying that Magnus and Titus are also coming to the last major event of the Alpine summer, and will help to exchange the animals’ grazing clamps to the melodious sound of the clamp bells. The clamps belong to the herders and farmers. More than anything they are of sentimental value to their owners, but depending on their size and workmanship they can be worth up to 600 euros. Over the summer, the young herders have got to know each of the animals, and can now tell them apart by their outward appearance and individual characters.

Young shepherds on the Bärgunt | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Tomorrow, the livestock belonging to 15 farmers will return to their own stalls. Shortly after sunrise the next day, they set off with the whole herd and drive them from the Bärgunthütte to Scheidplatz in Riezlern, where the animals are separated and returned to their owners. Things have gone well right up to the last day, and Wolfgang is proud to be able to return every single animal to the farmers in good condition. Most of them have been entrusting their cattle to him for many years, and friendships have grown up, something he greatly appreciates.

As all the animals are driven safely back down into the valley, the cattle procession is led by one elaborately decorated cow known as the “Kranzrind”. Because the Alpe Bärgunt herd runs to well over 200 animals, there are two Kranzrinde. It’s not just the cattle that are decked out for this special day, however; the herders also don their Sunday best to bid farewell to a successful Alpine summer after the last strenuous trek from Baad to Riezlern. As a thank you for their efforts, the young herders from the Alpe Bärgunt are given some pocket money and their own clamp, which is elaborately engraved with their name and the number of summers they have spent on the pasture. A valuable reminder of a summer that has given them countless experiences and memories, and that will probably accompany them throughout their lives.

Altkühe  | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen


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