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Swiss village set to vote to keep cowbells ringing

AARWANGEN, SWITZERLAND (AFP) – Cows grazing on lush pastures with ornate metal bells gently tinkling around their necks may be one of the ultimate symbols of Switzerland, but not everyone is enchanted by such traditional scenes.

In the village of Aarwangen in central Switzerland, a complaint was filed earlier this year over the noise levels from a herd of around 15 cows grazing overnight on a field next to a residential area.

Two couples in rental apartments overlooking the field asked authorities to intervene and ensure the farmer removed the bells at night.

The reaction was swift and fierce, with overwhelming demands for a local vote to protect the traditional use of bells.

“My first reaction when I heard about the complaint was one of surprise,” Aarwangen mayor Niklaus Lundsgaard-Hansen, who lives near the field in question, told AFP.

“I wasn’t aware that cows made a lot of noise, but I have learned that they can disturb some people.”

A farmer blows to remove dust of cow bells in Aarwangen, central Switzerland. PHOTO: AFP

He was even more surprised at the massive response. Petitioners only needed to gather backing from 10 per cent of those eligible to vote in the village of 4,800 people – about 380 signatures – to push the issue to a vote under Switzerland’s famous direct democracy system.

Instead, they showed up with 1,099 signatures for their “Bell Initiative”, aimed at maintaining the right of farmers to use cowbells at all hours.

“That’s enormous,” Lundsgaard-Hansen said.

The initiative will be officially presented before village voters at a municipal assembly next Monday, with the popular vote expected to take place next June. Cowbells were once seen as indispensable for keeping track of herds grazing on Alpine pastures, and while their usefulness has waned with the emergence of GPS trackers, they remain a powerful symbol of idyllic Swiss rural life.

Last week, rituals related to Alpine farming, including driving cattle up to high mountain pastures for the summer wearing the decorative bells, were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

But with many urbanites seeking peace and tranquillity in the countryside, within a commuter distance from cities and towns, the charm of cowbells sometimes wears thin.