Cowbell noise complaint in Switzerland captures world headlines
What started as a simple noise complaint from a couple in Switzerland has now garnered international media attention after the locals of Aarwangen, Canton Bern, voted in favour of a referendum to protect the ringing of cowbells. The story has captured the public imagination as an allegory for cultural change and resistance to newcomers.
Noise complaint about Swiss cowbells sparks town-wide debate
Our story starts all the way back in the spring of 2023, when a new couple started to rent an apartment in the town of Aarwangen, just on the border between cantons Bern, Aargau and Solothurn. After moving in, the couple found the ringing of cowbells from nearby farms to be deafeningly loud and launched a noise complaint at the local council.
Upon hearing about the complaint, locals in the 5.000-strong community started what was described by Watson as an “emotional discussion…about rural traditions, tolerance and the urban-rural divide.” The town had certainly 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.
Aarwangen approves referendum to protect cowbells
Even though the couple had withdrawn their complaint, and one other person who complained had moved away, Swiss citizens in the town garnered 1.099 signatures to bring the protection of cowbells in the community to a local referendum - for reference, you only need 319 signatures to submit a referendum in Aarwangen. “Carrying bells on cows, sheep and goats are important…Together we are committed to taking care of our tradition!” wrote referendum committee president Andreas Baumann.
At a council meeting on December 11, all but four people attending voted in favour of the initiative. The council now has until next summer to come up with a plan that would “protect” the usage of bells in Aarwangen, after which the community is expected to vote on it again.
Swiss cowbell kerfuffle garners international headlines
So why has this dispute garnered so much attention from the likes of the BBC and Stern? Referendum president Baumann told Watson that he was overwhelmed by the number of messages from journalists and media channels, with some requests coming from as far afield as Australia and Canada.
One could say that it allows us all to muse on how societies change and react to said change. Baumann himself admitted that the referendum is "clearly" not just about cowbells, as Federal Courts, not communities, tend to rule on the use of cowbells and noise complaints related to farming. He argued that "it's about how we as Swiss want to preserve and maintain our lived traditions in the future."
The BBC thought along similar lines, with the corporation’s Imogen Foulkes writing that “In a country with high immigration... there will always be those who see any change in tradition as an attack on their culture and identity. That's exactly what the cowbell dispute in Aarwangen is about. In last month's parliamentary elections, the right-wing Swiss People's Party campaigned with the slogan 'So that Switzerland stays Switzerland', and it made strong gains."