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The Valais is known for a host of peculiar local traditions, one of the oddest of which must be cowfighting. Utterly unlike Spanish bullfighting – an altogether gorier spectacle – Valaisian cowfighting stems from village get-togethers to see whose cow was best suited to lead the herds up to the summer Alpine pastures. The cattle all come from the local Hérens breed, bright-eyed with short legs and powerful chests, and known for their aggressiveness, who would naturally pick fights with each other in the open meadows: in the beginnings, farmers merely corralled them together to see who would win. These days, the contests have become rather more important – breeding means big money for the Valaisian cattle farmers, and the winner of the annual round of cowfighting championships can be assured both a head price in the tens of thousands of francs plus the prestigious title Queen of the Herd.
Farmers feed up the most bullish of their cows on a special extra-rich diet to improve (or worsen) her temper, occasionally allowing her the odd bucket of wine as a tonic and coaching her in sparring contests amongst the herd. Come the day of battle, farmers tie a huge cowbell around their champion’s neck, lead her into the “arena” (generally just a meadow), and introduce her to her opponent. Hérens cows rarely need any encouragement to provoke each other into aggression, and they happily lock horns to fight it out. There’s never any bloodiness, and the winner is generally deemed to be the cow who has shoved or intimidated her opponent into submission.
Local contests are held on Sundays once or twice a month in various towns from late March through to September, accompanied by much revelry and the consumption of gallons of local wine. Two events stand out: the cantonal championships are held in Aproz, a small town just outside Sion, in mid-May, with the winners going on to Martigny for the Combats des Reines, a huge show held in the 5000-seater Roman amphitheatre in early October. It’s here that the supreme champion is crowned Queen of the Herd.
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