Warrior and Icon: the Herens Cow

Valais just wouldn't be complete without the Herens cow. Without it, an event which attracts tens of thousands of visitors and onlookers today, the traditional Valais cow fight, would never have developed. This unique breed is also responsible for delicacies like the outstanding Valais dried meat and tasty dairy products. Breeder Déborah Métrailler has some particularly successful fighting cows. Her astounding recipe for success: ‘I go jogging with the cows before the fights.’

Good-natured fighting spirit

Melinda, a Herens cow, has little in common with the Brown Swiss cows which are so typical elsewhere in Switzerland: she looks compact and muscular. And she can display a certain amount of wildness. Déborah Métrailler explains: ‘Herens cows are herd animals who fight it out amongst themselves to determine their rank. It can get pretty serious; but it's entirely natural behaviour for them.’ As if on cue, Melinda starts to show what she can do in her outdoor enclosure: hopping smoothly over the pasture, lunging wildly over and over, ramming into a tree trunk. This work is not for the faint-hearted. But Déborah's gentle voice soothes the cow. Before long it lets her scratch its head between its horns, and the big eyes show nothing but gentleness. Won't the cow become too soft if surrounded by so much love? Déborah laughs. ‘These are Valais cows; they can't be sweet-talked that easily.’ But she also has other reasons to respect them: it was reportedly the Romans who brought this breed to Valais. And while other domesticated animals eventually lost their original qualities, looking at a Herens cow is like looking back in time at a community of man and beast determined to survive despite harsh conditions and extreme altitudes.

A matter of the heart for centuries

Breeding Herens cattle is a family matter – and a matter of the heart. Déborah looks after the 30 cows and calves together with her father Gothard, her mother Georgette and her brothers and sisters. The cows from the Métrailler stable typically rank near the top at the regional cow fights, and at the national championship in Aproz. The family has a long breeding tradition. Déborah's grandfather is the legendary Robert Vuissoz, whose cow Pigalle was named ‘Queen of the Queens’ in the year 1971, a title which is the Valais equivalent of winning the World Cup. Déborah is continuing this tradition with success.

Her father looks after things in the stable. ‘Herens cattle are a passion, not a job.’ He himself is an electrician, and Déborah has begun training as an HR specialist. They split the work in the stable with her mother Georgette. Six hours a day, day after day. It's a lot of work, and expensive too. Every now and then the Métralliers sell a cow: their stable enjoys an excellent reputation among breeders. The tournaments don't offer any cash prizes, and Herens cattle are not particularly lucrative when it comes to producing milk and beef. But that's not what it's about. ‘Anyone breeding Herens cattle does so out of passion,’ explains Déborah. ‘It's about honour, pride and tradition, and above all it gives you joy.’

Breeding Herens cattle, a tradition with a rich history, Valais
Déborah with her father Gothard

A father's pride

The big cowbell, standard issue for a fighting cow, jingles threateningly. Like an animal trainer, Déborah stands in the enclosure and calls Melinda to her in a calm but determined voice. ‘Of course you should never underestimate the immense strength of Herens cattle.’ Her father Gothard stands at the fence and looks on vigilantly. ‘The cows are generally very good-natured: things may happen sometimes, but it's never intentional.’ The Métraillers have their animals under control at all times. After a short walk, Melinda is safely back in her stable, a happy cow.

The Métraillers' farm is in Loye, a small hamlet high above Grône in Central Valais. Déborah looks out over the Rhone Valley. Valais is more than just the place where she lives. It's her home, and she has deep roots here. Breeding Herens cattle is hard work, and it leaves little free time. But Déborah has no regrets, she's happy, and she enjoys the few days she can spare for family outings. Like next week, when the Métraillers will travel to Biel, where Déborah will be receiving her HR Assistant’s certificate: she completed the course with the highest marks. Georgette and Gothard gaze at their daughter with a glow of pride. The future belongs to her. And that includes cultivating a beautiful tradition with a rich history.

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