For over 600 years, humans and sheep have been going back and forth between the alpine pastures of North and South Tirol. 3,000-metre-high peaks, steep ridges, and human-made borders are not an obstacle for the tradition of Transhumance.
The autumn sun is standing low but shining strongly over the south-east slopes of the Guslarspitzen peaks. At the moment, the snow still melts away in the Rofental Valley, and the bells are still chiming through the idyllic Ötztal Alps. In front of the old Alpine hut at the Rofenberg mountain you can see the Tirolean flag blowing on the pole. Then there’s that sound of someone opening a bottle of beer. Two dozen men and women are leaning against a wooden fence, sitting on benches, and are enjoying a local beer. Time for an after-work drink! The men and women are wearing blue aprons – the typical working outfit of South Tiroleans. Herbert is the only one not wearing an apron because one size does not always fit all – the apron is too small for him. Before retiring, Herbert used to make stairs out of marble and soapstone. In addition, he has been helping out at the Rofenbergalm hut for more than 40 years now. His task: counting little white dots on the steep slopes with a surface of 700 hectares. Within the last three days, the herders mustered and impounded 1,400 sheep. If they didn’t have binoculars, they would have to look for ages. That’s why they always carry the binoculars with them under their apron, like a baby on their chest. Just recently, the mother sheep appeared with their stumbling lambs on the ridges. Since then, there has been a continuous bleating dominating the ambient noise. Mäh, Möh, Määäh. Now all the sheep are together. Over the course of the evening, the men and women have a couple more beers. The next day, they set out with or without a hangover but with a pack of dogs. They will show the sheep the safest route over the main alpine ridge in the Ötztal Valley. That’s what they do every September – year after year. It might sound like quite a laborious habit: It’s called Transhumance and has been the custom and right of the Alto Adige shepherds for over 600 years. Two documents from 1357 and 1415 prove that their sheep are allowed to graze on the 2,900 hectares of pasture area in the Rofen and Niedertal Valley.
The Alto Adige agricultural community still continues this custom up until today. You see, the grass is actually a lot green on the side of the Austrian neighbours. Every June, farmers from the Venosta Valley and Schnalstal Valley troop together their sheep and goats in Vernagt and Kurzras and trek from there over two mountain pass routes to the Ötztal Valley alpine pastures. The sheep then enjoy the cool, fresh meadows in the Quelltal Valley by Vent for three months, while the bare pastures in the dry South recover. One head shepherd spends the whole summer alone with the sheep. He uses a pen to draw red, purple, green, and blue dots and circleson the sheep so the owners know which is which; he scatters salt and stones for the sheep; patches up their broken legs, and liberates them from parasites. In autumn, the other drivers return and bring the sheep back home.
The flock starts its way home in the Rofental Valley at 2,400 metres above sea level. The sheep have been grazing a lot and have left the pasture quite bare. Only the wolfsbane is still there in full bloom. It is poisonous. Sheep are quite greedy but definitely not dumb. The final measures before departure: Herbert is having a slice of brown bread with strawberry jam. Fatjon is pouring an instant powder with peach ice tea flavour into a plastic bottle with water. Jonas drinks his peach ice tea in one go, and hands his empty bottle to Hugo who is kneeing on the floor. He milks the mother sheep in no time, and then feeds the new-born lamb with the warm milk from the bottle. It had been trying to drink from its mum’s udder in vain. The milk transfer is over within three minutes and seems so easy and without any trouble at all – just like everything else happening these days. The only unusual thing this year is the number of lambs which increased the size of the flock of sheep – 21 lambs in total. During the night four were born, and just now another two. The head shepherd Hans is in a bad mood because of that. A lamb can already stand after just half an hour after birth, but the steep ridge walk would still be far too difficult for its frail legs. Hugo, the white-haired Henry Fonda with the wide-brimmed felt hat, used to deliver wooden boxes for the apple harvest for over 30 years and would definitely be able to carry 21 lambs over the Alps. But then he explains to us that a little lamb just recently broke its back leg and another one fell from the hill during its first tentative steps. In order to be more cautious, the head shepherd Hans wisely decides to pick up the youngest cattle together with their mothers and two shepherds with the jeep a bit later.
Here, here, here – come, come, come
The sheep are moved over the mountains. The verb move must have been a cynical joke from someone who had to trail behind the extremely young, weakened by age, and ill sheep during the transhumance. You are only as fast as the weakest link, and this weakest link nowadays carries a red dot on its white neck. But this sheep is not old or ill, it’s just lazy. The average speed of the rear keeper is about 2.1 kilometres per hour – less than one metre per second. On the first part of the trail, from the alpine hut steep down to the bride over the Hintereisbach stream, they walk even more slowly. The narrow, wobbly suspension bridge is scary for the sheep. If one of the drivers pronounces the call the wrong way, Hugo makes fun of them.
It always looks so easy on the little image of saints with the good shepherd: Jesus – barefoot and in a blaze of glory – is carrying a pristine white lamb, surrounded by his loyal sheep. “Most people think that the sheep just do everything on their own”, Hugo explains. His blue apron is full of blood after the long morning assisting births. If the sheep were religious, then they’d be catholic because Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd definitely sets the agenda. The sheep don’t even have names, but they have everything they need. In Alto Adige they would say: “Erst kimmt’s Schof, nachad d’Frau.” (The sheep comes first, then the wife.)
The sheep is the oldest pet of human beings. Sheep have been providing humans with meat, milk, and wool since the year one. Sheep, in Latin pecus, were human’s currency, in Latin pecunia. The market price of the pecunia has fallen drastically just recently, also in Alto Adige. Each year, fewer sheep walk over to the Ötztal Valley. In 1977, there were still 7,000. Nowadays, most South Tiroleans keep their sheep as a hobby. Breeding does not really pay off anymore. One kilo of white wool is worth 39 cents. The drivers actually have other professions. Lukas is a carpenter, Hannes a mechanic, and Pirmin an electrician. Karl cultivates apples and cauliflowers. Marian is sixteen and still at school. Florian has just had an operation on his knee. Jörg has had a slipped disc four times. Yet, all of them have come from Alto Adige to drive the sheep. Why? “Because it’s a tradition.” The answer does not sound dutiful, but still proud. Tradition isn’t a question. Tradition is a fact. It’s part of their life.
Traces that are thousands of years old
Hugo interrupted his retirement just for the sheep. He and his eleven siblings were all part of the transhumance at one point. The eldest, Hans, is the head shepherd now, the second eldest, Willi, was the head shepherd for 40 years. Before that, their father – often called Weger Vinz – walked to the Rofenbergalm hut and before him, his grandfather and his grandfather’s father. Already at the age of six, Hugo moved the sheep all on his own over the Similaun – that’s where the leathery corpse of Ötzi unfroze at the Tisenjoch ridge. The Iceman proved in 1991 that humans have been crossing the crest of the Alps for over 5,000 years. Three years later, the remains of a Neanderthal camp by Vent were found – which showed that the driving of nomadic shepherd cultures dates back nearly 10,000 years.
Only to the practised eye are the trails and tracks of the sheep and shepherds visible on the hills. The transhumance hardly leaves any visible traces but instead a great heritage. The hike has connected North and South Tirol for centuries, crossing over 3,000-metre-high ridges partially covered by glaciers. It’s the only cross-border movement of sheep in the world.
The drivers and shepherds are shy. They don’t speak. They murmur or shout. If you listen closely, you’ll hear what they say. They use curse words and country lores; Jörg cites a brief part of the Tirolean Rebellion from 1806 against Bavaria and Napoleon. He tells stories of the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy when all of Tirol was a mighty countship – from Kufstein to Ala in Trentino. His mobile phone rings. The ringtone is the secret Tirolean anthem “Dem Land Tirol die Treue” (“Loyalty to Tirol”). Nostalgic and also young folk musicians still play this provocatively emotional march today. Alto Adige is home loving. The mountains were never barriers here, they have always been bridges. When in 1998, the European Region Tirol – Alto Adige – Trentino was founded as a cross-border cooperation, the bond between South and North Tirol was officially recognised. Last year, the transhumance was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritages. Even after Tirol was divided between Italy and Austria after World War I, even after the fascists wanted to teach South Tirol Italian manners in the 30s – the shepherds did not let anyone estrange them from their traditions. They always crossed the ridges – generation after generation. Sometimes with more, sometimes with less luggage. Up until the 16th century, the stiff dead bodies were brought back to the South to Kastelbell because there were no cemeteries in Vent. That’s why the statues of the saints and the high altar of the small Vent baroque church from Schnals were built. Cigarettes, butter, and saccharin were smuggled past the armed Carabinieri. Another thing that they took with them were the maiden and family names.
In the lonely lunar landscape
The weather is magnificent for the transhumance today: sun and a couple of clouds. The sheep who know the route well enough carry a bell and show the flock the way. The trail of around 20 kilometres and nearly 800 metres difference in altitude seems quite far, depending on the weather it takes seven to twelve hours. The hike can become uncomfortable at some stages, depending on the snow and ice conditions it can be quite dangerous: Just beneath the Niederjoch ridge, seventy sheep suffocated during a snowstorm in 1979. And three years ago, foggy weather made it impossible to continue the route. Long shadows cover the mountain hills, take away their colour. Between the limestone rocks you can hardly recognise the sheep. Behind a steep climb of serpentines, a lunar landscape spreads out. Soon, there’s no going back. Soon, the troop will only be surrounded by loneliness, step by step, quiet rings of the bells, continuous bleating. A very short pause, a quick look back, where is the sheep, oh, there it is, behind a crupper, it’s grazing on a little spot. The men and women get lost in between the sheep. Slowly, the sun starts to shine on to the emerald green glacier lake of the Hochjochferner, surrounded by shimmering slates that look like puddles. The word transhumance can be built from the Latin words trans (beyond) and humus (Earth). However, transhumance could also be described as unearthly – that’s what it is.
The keepers of thousands of sheep and centuries-old traditions keep on walking. They don’t have an eye for the panoramic view. “The worst thing you can do, is stand in the way of the sheep,” Ulrich explains while passing by. What does he mean? Well, if sheep suddenly stop, the following stubborn sheep just drive into the ones in front instead of waiting. In the worst case, some of them fall off the side of the cliff. Each year, one to two per cent of the animals do not make it. Ulrich’s mixed-breed dog Jessy makes sure that not more sheep have an accident. The dog sweeps around the sheep and looks like a sweet, yapping mop. The picture-book shepherd does not exist anymore. The 800-year old Schäferhütte hut at Rofenberg was gradually upgraded with electricity and running water, a corrugated iron roof with a satellite dish, and a solar system. The shepherds have sunglasses, braces, and mobile phones. Up here there is even a 3G mobile network that reaches a lot further than whistles and shouts. In return, the Hochjochferner glacier has become a lot smaller. First a person lies in the ice for over 5,300 years and then the same glacier melts down to a third of its original size just within 30 years. It has been long since a sheep has fallen into a crevasse and hikers have needed crampons.
Traditional brass music from the valley
After five hours, the flock passes the custom house at the border crossing. 800 metres further, at 3,845 metres above sea level is where the mountain shelter Schöne Aussicht (Beautiful View) is located. Alpinists and visitors enjoy the view into every cardinal direction and respect, and they mingle with the approaching sheep and shepherds. Suddenly a lamb is born right in the middle of everything. Wine grower Leo pulls out a shot glass and an apricot schnapps from his cardigan and invites everyone to a round of schnapps. Cheers! The curious bystanders have a lot of questions and cannot stop taking pictures. They are allowed to accompany the flock down the last stage to Kurzras, however, they have to let the sheep go first.
From now on, it’s all downhill. And everyone’s strength is also declining. The shepherds’ and drivers’ facial expressions only change when they grin. “I can always force a little smile on to my face,” Jörg explains, and indeed the laughter lines around his eyes are the only part in his face which are not tanned. If someone has a cramp, Hugo’s youngest sister Rosa is there to help – she is a physiotherapist. Fatjon bandages three paws of his border collie Hex who tripped over the sharp stone edges. We’ve nearly made it! The sound of traditional brass music means that we have nearly reached our goal. The arrival of the sheep has to be celebrated.
It’s nearly three o‘clock. The descent ends in a scree field. In a few months this will be a gravel track and ski slope. Flanked by snow canons, the flock heads towards the meeting place. That’s where the sheep will be sorted by colour and handed back to their owners.
On the opposite side, where the shepherds’ festival is under way, the mountain rescue of Schnals is handing out bratwurst rolls with tarragon mustard. And the afterwork drink is of course that special local beer. Most of the farmers still have to continue their trek of half a day tomorrow – over the Taschljöchl to the farms at Sonnenberg, into the Venosta Valley. They are already daydreaming of the roast on the table at home: a piece of shank and some ribs.
The restaurants in Schnals will be serving lamb specialities in the upcoming weeks to make it tempting for the country and its people again. There will be ragout, meat patties, strips, salami, and meat salad. The lamb meat is always best straight after the summer escape in the Ötztal Valley. After savouring the glacier water, alpine herbs, and wild flowers for months, their legs are strong and tasty. Most of the sheep, however, will drive over the ridges to the Rofenbergalm hut again in June next year. The tradition will stay alive.