Rendezvous with a sheep farmer


When a wolf attacks a flock of sheep they run but don’t scatter. The wolf circles the terrified flock biting anything within reach. That’s why there is so much damage. In the small canton of Glarus in central Switzerland a farmer lost ten sheep and lambs in one attack two summers ago. He made the grim discovery when he went up to check on his flock on a high mountain pasture above the town of Näfels. What made the Glarus attack special was that it was the first confirmed presence of a wolf in the canton for more than two centuries.

I had seen the story on the wires and decided to follow up on it. A few days later I had a rendezvous with the sheep farmer at 7.30a.m. I was the only guest in the B&B. The retired couple who ran the place served me a banquet for breakfast. They watched me eat with solicitous care, possibly still alarmed by my admission that I had left my children at home overnight. I explained that the children were in the care of their father but that did not seem to diminish their concern. No mother will ever feel unimportant in Switzerland.

This carefully prepared Swiss breakfast was a treat for the senses. Little ramekins of home-made jams sat next to a plate of cold cuts of meat. A loaf of fresh Zopf bread was draped with a white napkin, ready to be sliced, and the cheese board beckoned with a wealth of tastes and textures. There was a constant supply of fresh coffee and hot milk. The man of the house accepted my compliments for his special creation, carpaccio of fennel served with dill and vinaigrette. I was ready for my hike.

Before I travelled there, the only thing I knew about canton Glarus – one big valley, lots of mountains – was that it was where Switzerland’s ‘last witch’ was beheaded in 1782. I had once interviewed a local historian about the subject by telephone. Anna Goldi was a servant woman who worked for an influential family in the village of Mollis. When one of the children in her care sickened and allegedly coughed up pins, Anna was accused of witchcraft and locked up. Rumour had it she was also having sexual relations with her employer, information which would have been damaging to him if made public. Incredibly, even though the child recovered, Anna was sentenced to death by the Protestant church council, fifty years after the last similar execution for witchcraft had taken place in Germany. She was officially exonerated by the cantonal parliament in 2008 and there is now a museum in her memory.

The sheep farmer was waiting for me outside the train station. A stocky man with an Amish-style beard – Switzerland is home to the original Mennonites – he pointed to the high grey cliffs looming over the town of Näfels. Above the wall of rock I could see some patches of meadow in between the trees. That’s where we’re going, he said.  We drove a short distance outside the town and then began the hike up.

As we walked, we talked. Robert, a carpenter by trade, was a hobby farmer who brought his sheep up to graze in the Alpine meadow from May to September. The land he rented for a nominal sum from the commune of Näfels, a system of commonage that has survived since time immemorial. Most of the Alpine meadows in Glarus belong to the communes, he told me. He walked up three times a week, an hour each way, to check on his flock. I began to think I had met the quintessential Swiss man, a man who only needed a change of costume to seem right at home in the time of Anna Göldi and the last wolf in Glarus.

Robert pointed out tufts of black wool on the path. The wildlife ranger who had passed by there earlier in the week to inspect the scene of the wolf attack said that wool had been coughed up by a bird of prey after it had fed on the carcasses of the sheep.

The conversation had to stop when I ran out of breath, and we climbed steadily up the steep forest path. When we got above the tree line, a tiny mountain chalet came into view. A wizened old man was sitting outside the hut smoking a pipe, the shepherd. Aha, another character from the 18th century, I thought.

But behind the timeless traditions and rustic conditions, a modern, sophisticated, state-funded system was at work. The wolf’s DNA had already been gathered and sent off for testing and its presence would soon be recorded on the website of the monitoring group.

The old shepherd with the weather-beaten face was called Walter and he came from Valais on the other side of the country. He works with a sheepdog protection service that is mobilised within a couple of days of a wolf attack, run by Agridea, a national agriculture development agency. He had come with two sheepdogs, white-haired Italian Maremanno-Abruzzese, who did not take too kindly to my visit. Walter was there to get the dogs settled in and they were due to spend the rest of the summer on the alp, guarding the sheep.

Walter was a retired sports teacher turned sheep farmer and sheepdog breeder who had achieved his dream of living far away from and, in his case far above, the madding crowd.

The three of us sat on the bench outside the hut enjoying the morning sun and eating slices of dried sausage and cherries from Robert’s garden. Two border collies that Walter had brought along for company watched our every move, especially when the slices of sausage were involved. There was construction work going on in the valley and the low buzz of civilisation drifted up to us.

Later, Walter and I chatted about wolf and sheep matters while Robert cleared a large patch of thistles and nettles with a scythe, another subsidised task, under the protection of the mountains scheme.

I went to see the sheep to take some photographs, as close as the sheepdogs allowed me to get, and too soon, it was time to hike back down to roads and cars and houses and crowds. I was reminded of the allure of the mountains and the precious escape they provide to many Swiss people. Some argue that things are getting too crowded at high altitude too, as farmers, tourists and wildlife compete for space. I hoped the wolf would continue on her way and choose her next meal more carefully. If you’d like to read the story I wrote for about the return of the wolf, click here.

My non-fiction book about Switzerland, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, partly draws on my years of reporting for, such as this trip to Glarus. Now available to buy through the publisher Bergli Books and on Amazon, it will be officially launched in Switzerland tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to feedback from readers, so don’t forget to rate or review on Goodreads or Amazon, drop over to my Facebook page to comment, or simply tell your friends about The Naked Swiss.

Image courtesy of Micha L. Rieser, Wikipedia Commons

Would you pass the Swiss sleeping-in-straw test?

The ‘Stroh Deluxe’ room in Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in the Emmental is a world away from the real thing

The longest night I ever lived through in Switzerland was spent half way up a mountain in a barn, my head resting on a rough pillow several feet above a calving cow. Although 90 per cent of the population lives in the lowlands, the Swiss like to think of themselves as a mountain people, and therefore they celebrate all the trappings of rustic mountain life. When the idea of ‘sleeping in the straw’ came up, I took my cue from my enthusiastic Swiss friends and convinced myself it would be a fun thing to do.

It was a chair lift ride and half a day’s hike to get to the chalet where a farming couple were spending the summer looking after their herd of two dozen cows. We ate fondue outside and watched the sun set over the pre-Alps. I had to agree it was lovely. When we were shown to the accommodation upstairs – rough-hewn wooden bunks with the promised straw-filled mattresses and army blankets – I thought it could have been worse. I hadn’t taken vernacular Swiss architecture into account.

To keep everybody warm in winter, Swiss farmhouses traditionally integrated the family’s living quarters and the barn or cowshed under one roof. We were actually sleeping in the old hay loft, directly above the stall. This soon became clear from what I could smell through the gaps between the floorboards. One cow was being kept in for the night (I soon discovered why) while the rest were free to roam outside. When I resigned myself to the smell and the occasional sounds of snorting and stamping from downstairs, it seemed like sleep might be possible.

I awoke from a short and fitful sleep to distinctly more unhappy sounds coming from the cow below. I don’t know how many hours that poor cow was calving but I didn’t sleep a wink throughout. It did eventually come to an end and finally the light went out and the sound of lowing and voices was gone. All was not lost, I thought, dawn was still at least an hour off. I hadn’t reckoned on the morning milking, which started after what felt like a mere moment of shut-eye. First the whole house shook with the thundering of twenty-four sets of hooves on the wooden floor, and the clanging of twenty four cowbells, as the cows came in to be milked. Then the milking machine generator started up, also seemingly located directly under my bed, with its own penetrating noise. Eventually I was lulled back to sleep by the chugging – until it stopped. But then it was time for the cows to be let out, and the din of hooves started up again.

The next day I hurried down to the Central Swiss Plateau, glad to be back in the one of the most densely populated areas in Europe if it meant having modern conveniences and sleeping through the night.

The age-old tradition of taking herds up the mountains to the summer pastures is only maintained by a relatively small number of famers nowadays. Some 17,000 mountain farmers make the trek every year with 800,000 livestock, usually staying in simple chalets while they look after their animals, serve drinks to hikers, and make cheese or other farm produce. Where practical, herds or flocks are left alone, or in the care of sheepdogs.

An incredible two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains but my sleeping in the straw experience is the closest most Swiss get to mountain life in the land of Heidi, chalets and yodelling from alp to alp. To the Swiss who live in the lowlands, the mountains are their playground, a place to go skiing, hiking, paragliding or hunting. The fact is it is difficult to make a living up there. The majority of Alpine farmers rely on subsidies, and volunteers are drafted in to help with the summer harvest in a support programme organised by the charity Caritas. And the Swiss are loyal to their high-altitude brethren. The charity for hard-up mountain dwellers Schweizer Berghilfe (Swiss Mountain Aid) is one of the most popular in Switzerland for bequests. On the scientific front, the Swiss are global leaders in avalanche and glacier research. They also know a thing or two about hydroelectric power, since more than half of Switzerland’s electricity production comes from hydroelectric power generation.

This summer I summoned the courage to sleep in a mountain hut again, this one belonging to the family of a friend. First we had a hair-raising drive up a narrow winding road hewn out of the mountainside, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place whenever we met another car. Then came a long hike, up and up. There was no milking involved this time – the small herd left alone on our particular alp were too young – so I only had the spiders to worry about as I waited for morning to come. But I did have the pleasure of being first up and lighting the morning fire to heat water for breakfast, one of those age-old tasks that almost made me sentimental about mountain life. Have you ever tried sleeping on the straw? Or what is the equivalent where you come from?  For those curious to try it, check out this Swiss agritourism website to find a farmhouse nearby. But if you prefer something more refined, why not try the room in the picture above at the Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in Emmental, canton Bern? I know I’m tempted.