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Swiss town embroiled in ding-dong battle over cowbells

Swiss town embroiled in ding-dong battle over cowbells

From milk chocolate to cheese, it’s hard to say what Switzerland would be without cows lining the country's hills and mountains with bells a-clanging. Now, in a story that is as Swiss as could be, a town in Canton Bern will soon vote in a referendum calling for Swiss cowbells to be preserved, following an internationally famous noise complaint from some locals.

Aarwangen residents locked in cowbell noise dispute

The saga is said to have begun in the spring of 2023 when a family started to rent an apartment in the town of Aarwangen, Canton Bern. Soon after moving in, the couple discovered that their home was right opposite a field of cows equipped with traditional cowbells. Soon, they complained to the local council as they found the noise to be “deafeningly loud” at all hours of the day.

Matters escalated once locals in the 5.000-strong town heard about the complaint, which launched what Watson described at the time as an “emotional discussion…about rural traditions, tolerance and the urban-rural divide.” The town had changed a lot in recent years - going from a small farming community into a member of the ever-expanding commuter belt for Solothurn and Olten - and thanks to the complaint the debate over old versus new had finally boiled over.

Vote to preserve Swiss cowbells captures world headlines

Despite the couple having withdrawn the noise complaint, Swiss citizens in Aarwangen launched a referendum calling for cow, sheep and goat bells to be made into a locally preserved tradition. Now, the public will be given a chance to vote on the law at an assembly meeting on June 17, 2024 - however, while the vote will change municipal law on bells, it will still be up to the courts to decide whether they constitute a valid noise complaint in future.

At the time of the votes’ announcement in December 2023, referendum president Andreas Baumann said he was swamped by requests from journalists, with the vote gaining international attention thanks to reports from the BBC and Stern. "The bells are part of the Swiss DNA…It's about our traditions, which we want to preserve here," Baumann told SRF

Swiss cowbells: Animal welfare versus traditional practices

What started out as a simple noise complaint has now escalated into a wider debate about animal welfare and the purpose of Swiss cowbells to begin with. Samuel Büechi from the Stiller interest group told SRF that "a bell that weighs more than one-thousandth of the animal's weight is too big and is animal cruelty" - a claim which is disputed by farmers.

The main issue for the debate lies in a lack of data. For instance, a study by ETH Zurich in 2014 concluded that while cowbells change the behaviour of cows “slightly”, more research needs to be done in order to draw solid conclusions - to date, no such research has been carried out.

Speaking to SRF, farmer Ueli Götti argued that the bells are harmless and that they still serve an important function "at least in the Alpine region. You can hear where the cattle are when it is pitch black and foggy." By contrast, Büechi argued that the cowbells are useless in the modern day: "Imagine if you constantly heard burglar sirens on cars. That would be a catastrophe. These cowbells are exactly that kind of system."

Others also worry about how the removal of cowbells would impact Swiss customs and traditions. Speaking to SRF, former Samedan Mayor and farmer Peter Niggli noted that while cowbells do not serve a purpose on a modern farm, they are still “part of the tradition.” He concluded that since the bells are so important for tourism and marketing, maybe farmers could compromise by fitting smaller and lighter cowbells on cattle instead. 

Jan de Boer

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Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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