An Autumn Tradition
On the first Saturday in October, an age old tradition takes place in Mayrhofen: The ‘Almabtrieb’ (cattle drive). After their summer holidays grazing the Alpine pastures, the cows are decorated with flowers and bells and herded back down to the valley. Every year up to 17,000 visitors gather to celebrate their return with music, food and drink. One of the revellers is young farmer Georg Rahm , owner of 25 of the 400 cows involved in the festival. In an interview we learn more about the background of this Austrian tradition and the ‘Almabtrieb’ in the Ziller Valley.
Why are the animals herded onto the mountain pastures in spring?
„This tradition is necessary as the feeding areas in the valley are just too small. We need the hay for winter, but, also the young, fresh grass on the mountain pastures is much healthier for the cows so they produce better quality milk. We are a group of four farmers with a shared pasture where 84 cows spend their summer. In the past cows were herded from the valley floor to high pastures at an altitude of 1600m.Nowadays, we bring the cows by lorry to a lower pasture, where the road unfortunately ends.“
What is life like on the ‘Alms’?
„Pretty lonely, hard work and still as it was 50 years ago. It is certainly far from an idyllic life. Without connections to the valley, summers on the high pastures will probably soon cease to exist. The need for access routes to the high alms has been the subject of discussion for many years but, because of nature protection, no action has yet been taken. We still carry the milk in heavy aluminium pales to the milk pipe next to the cable car station. We use a diesel motor for milking and wood for cooking.“
The cows arrive at the ‚Almabtrieb‘ in splendid decorations – how much work does that take?
„The preparations of the floral decorations take at least a week. The twigs have to be collected in the forests and the flowers correctly arranged. Of course, we mustn’t forget the pictures of the saints; we give thanks to the holy St Leonhard, the healer of working animals, for an accident-free summer on the pastures. Up to ten helpers arrive at the ‘Alm’ on the day before the ‘Almabtrieb’ and help to decorate the animals. The cows know exactly what’s going on and are just as nervous as the cowherds (smiles). “
How has the festival side of the ‚Almabtrieb‘ developed over the years?
„My Granddad told me that the farmers used to have to bring the cows down into the valley in the dark and the fog. At that time the cattle drive was not a thing to be celebrated because of all the mess left by the cows. As the years went on, more and more curious tourists gathered on the streets to watch, until the tourist office eventually made it an official event with additional entertainment at the end of the 1990s. Since then holidaymakers and locals can enjoy the unforgettable experience of watching this Austrian tradition up close.“
How do you celebrate this festival?
„The ‚Almabtrieb’ is the highlight of the farming year for us as we celebrate with family, friends and helpers. We give thanks for the fact that our animals make it safely back to the valley. The worst case scenario is hail and snowfall – even in summer – or lightening and steep cliffs which cows can fall off. That’s why we are thankful every year that everything goes well.“