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