A summer break for sheep

Every year in June, about 4000 sheep – divided into two large herds – are driven across the Ötztal Alps’ high mountain ridges from South Tyrol’s Schnalstal to the lush Alpine pasturelands of Vent. This tradition looks back on 6000 years already. The shepherd’s leader provides an insight into the summer life of sheep and herdsmen between the Alpine valleys of Niedertal and Rofental.

Sheep Drive Vent

Sheepwalks in all weather

Dangerously switch-backing trails past precipitous rides close to the eternal ice of the Similaun Glacier. In early June, 2000 South Tyrolean sheep and their herdsman Elmar Horrer start their walk from Vernagt in Schnalstal to Ötztal’s lush summery pasturelands in the North Tirolean Niedertal valley near Vent.

This true Alpine crossing in early summer takes much longer than the return walk in September. Elmar and his team have to clear the snow away or tread new paths for the animals.

A record beating flock of sheep

Before Elmar gets ready for the Alpine crossing of Niederjoch he has already made a twelve-hour hike together with a flock of sheep from Vinschgau – starting in Laas via Taschenjöchl to Vernagt where he meets the other sheep farmers.

In the dark morning, hours the huge herd of sheep heads towards Niederjoch saddle. The mountain huts are still closed, water comes from the Alpine brooks. Divided into three or four groups, the drovers ascend to Similaunhütte. The first animals leave the flock already at Martin-Busch-Hütte, followed by stopovers at the old and the new Shepherd’s Huts.

Tirolean mountain sheep, blacknose sheep and Tirolean stone sheep enjoy endless freedom plus tasty Alpine herbs, wild flowers and fresh mountain air for entire three months.

Sheep Drive Vent
Sheep Drive Vent

Herdsman with crook, hat and dog

A single shepherd supervises the three-month summer break, South Tyrol’s Elmar Horrer: shepherds’ boss, leading herdsman, chief strategist. Distinguishing mark: sun-tanned face, long shepherd’s crook, felt hat and blue apron!

Language: genuine Vinschgau dialect. Tries to talk proper German if tourists cross his way. His origins: Laas in Vinschgau where really tough men quarry even tougher marble stone. Age? Out of question. Companion: herding dog Aiko, two years old, black fur, Australian shepherd.

Good neighborhood without borders

Elmar is a friendly guy and likes his Ötztal neighbors in the Mountaineering Village of Vent: “Sometimes Markus Pirpamer, the hut tenant of Similaunhütte, comes to see me on the solitary pastures, ” he laughs, “or the local hunter walks by for a short chat.” On other days the lonely herdsman walks to the Rofenhöfe Farms, Tirol’s oldest settlement, to take a look at his sheep.

Rarely he drives to Sölden and buys food and drink in the supermarket. Then he also stops at Hotel Alt Vent where Michael and Ilse Scheiber live – they run Martin-Busch-Hütte together with their son Lukas for many years (there is an extra room for the South Tyrolean shepherds) – and enjoys a glass of red wine with Hansl, Michael’s cranky dad.

Vent Summer
Sheep Drive Vent

Rare leisure time

Nowadays Elmar’s life has become a bit more comfortable as he doesn’t stay anymore in the old shepherds hut without electricity or running water. The new, more spacious hut is closer to Vent. TV or radio? Negative. “I read a magazine or a book. My mobile phone works only next to the kitchen window,” Elmar explains.

“In the evenings I am so tired that I just need my bench by the oven.” Also the daily menu is very monotonous: “Pasta, noodles, pasta.” On some days his wife comes to see him, adding more variety to his life and kitchen.

The binoculars are his radar

Elmar gets up at six o clock every morning. There is nothing better than the work you do in the early morning hours when the sheep are grazing. It is the best time to make out their location. In the afternoon they often hide in the shade behind rocks or boulders.

His daily work is always the same: searching for sheep by using binoculars, taking care of injured animals, refill saltlicks on a total area of 6000 hectares. Elmar has no idea how many times he walked up and down the Alpine pasturelands with his dog Aiko.

Searching for sheeps
Hiking theatre “Friedl of the Empty Pockets”

An awe-inspiring Hiking Theater

In September, an outdoor stage play produced by Hubert Lepka will be performed in Vent: “Friedl of the Empty Pockets” takes place in the middle of the Alpine scenery, comprising artists in historical costumes. Probably Elmar will cross their way, as a walk-on part among sheep, dog and hikers.

It’s also the month to leave the summery high Alpine pastures together with a team of 20 drovers, dogs and some 2000 sheep that enjoyed a wonderful summer of freedom and fresh herbs in the mountains surrounding Martin-Busch-Hütte.

As a director and coordinator himself, Elmar guides the magnificent return of the sheep spectacle. Stage fright? Yes, of course. But only until the moment when the herd starts moving.

Facts

There are two huge sheep drives of about 4000 animals from Schnalstal (South Tyrol) to Ötztal (Tirol) and back to South Tyrol again. This blog focuses on the sheep drive on 10 June 2017, starting in Schnalstal’s village of Vernagt am See with approximately 2000 animals driven across Niederjoch saddle (3019 m) into Ötztal valley and Niedertal Alm near Vent. On 09 September this flock of sheep returns to their home stables in South Tyrol.

The second sheep drive takes place in Kurzras on 10 June, too. Some 1500 animals cross Hochjoch ridge (2770 m) towards Rofenberg Alm in Rofental near Vent. They return to Schnalstal on 10 September.

And there is a third sheep drive from South Tyrol to Tirol’s Ötztal valley where sheep from Passeiertal reach the pasturelands above Obergurgl after crossing Timmelsjoch Pass (2509 m).

This traditional transhumance dates back for more than 6000 years when the Alps’ original people drove their herds from the dry and arid grazing grounds of the South to the lush green summer pastures on the Northern side of the Alps. Documents prove the existence of such herd drives guided by Schnalstal, Passeiertal and Vinschgau farmers since the Middle Ages. From a contemporary point of view, Ötztal’s transhumance tradition was declared UNESCO Intangible Austrian Cultural Heritage in 2011.

More interesting facts about the sheep drives in Ötztal can be found here:

Guest Author Dagmar Gehm

The renowned journalist and sporty globetrotter from Hamburg has a great passion for the Ötztal and its manifold contrasts and activities:

  • Action – Isolation
  • Thrill of speed – Peace and relaxation
  • Ancient rituals – Trendy hot spots

Dagmar Gehm
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