What is the Tradition behind the Decoration of Cows for the Almabtrieb (Cattle Drive)?

Every year in autumn, visitors and locals in Mayrhofen are treated to a spectacular and colourful display as the Ziller Valley farmers parade their beautifully festooned cows from the mountain pastures back into the valley.

Almabtrieb Festival in Mayrhofen, Zillertal

©Norbert Freudenthaler

Created by Andrea Egger

However, what most spectators of the Almabtrieb festival in Mayrhofen-Hippach don’t realise is that the ornate headdresses worn by the cows have a special meaning behind them.  I found out more! 
 

Celebrating the return of the cows and cowherds to the valley is a long-standing tradition. 

Accounts of animals being decorated for their return from the Tyrolean mountain pastures to the valley exist from as long ago as the mid 18th century. The Ferdinandeum State Museum in Innsbruck even has a sketch from 1812 by the Tyrolean artist Jakob Placidus Altmutter which depicts a scene from a festive cattle drive. 

Cattle Drive in Mayrhofen, Zillertal
©Norbert Freudenthaler
Almabtrieb Festival in Mayrhofen, Zillertal
©Norbert Freudenthaler
Cattle Drive in Mayrhofen, Zillertal
©Norbert Freudenthaler

However, the Almabtrieb festival as we know it today has evolved over time…

Farmer Georg Rahm explains: "My grandfather told us that farmers used to have to bring the cattle through the villages in the dark and the fog. Back then, people didn’t like to watch the cattle drive, especially as the cowpats left unsightly marks on the streets. However, over the years, more and more inquisitive visitors came to watch this annual tradition until, in the late 1990s, the tourist office made it an official event with an additional programme of festivities. Since then, holidaymakers and locals can enjoy and experience this age-old Austrian tradition up close."
 

How much effort does it take to decorate the cows?

About a week of preparation is needed before the farmers and their helpers can even start to truss the headdresses. Sticks must be collected in the forest and the flowers artfully arranged. Religious images of saints and placards with biblical quotes are also part of the decorations.

©Dominic Ebenbichler

What is the meaning behind the colourful headdresses?

The decoration of cows with handmade headdresses and ornate bells for the cattle drive back into the valley is a way of showing thanks for a successful and accident-free summer on the mountain. However, if there has been a death in the farmer’s family, then the headdresses will be decorated with a black ribbon.

Some farmers even forgo the headdresses completely and just decorate the cows with bells. 
 

The day of the valley "homecoming" 

On the day of the Almabtrieb, the farmers need lots of helpers to festoon the cows. The most ornate headdress is put on the matriarch or alpha cow, who leads the rest of the herd down from the mountain to the farm in the valley. 

When all of the animals are safely back in the valley, the famer and his helpers can relax. The celebrations usually include one or two schnapps to toast a successful summer on the alm!