I joined the field trip to Naters, in the Valais canton of Switzerland, as part of the International Association for the Study of the Commons’ conference in Bern.
We took the train from Bern to Brig
and then the postbus across the Rhone, through Naters and up the steep hill to the village of Blatten. The train was a little delayed but our leader rang the bus company to ensure that it waited for us.
In Blatten (1,300 metres above sea level and about 500 metres below the snow) it was raining, so we went indoors to learn a bit about commoning from André Summermatter (his name translates as ‘summer meadow’), who is an agronomist and farm consultant for the state of Valais, but also runs a sheep farm part time, and is a member of the Naters Burgerschaft (council). In 2013 Naters merged with Birgisch and Mund communes.
Andre demonstrates the whip used for rounding up sheep on the mountain
Naters is to the south of the high Bernese Alps, which since 2001 have been designated as the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site.
André told us that there are 1,400 farmers in the upper valley of the canton of Valais, but only 150 are full time. The farms up the valley are very small, five to ten hectares. The grazing is managed by co-operatives. The government of Naters organises summer grazing with shepherds and volunteers. They do not use dogs because the land is too steep.
The livestock is mainly black-nosed sheep and black-necked goats. The livestock spends the winter low down and then is gradually moved up the mountain. We were told that this Saturday (14 May) they will be moved up to 1,600 metres above sea level. The next region in altitude is open from June to August, when the sheep are gathered from the mountains by young men using whips (demonstrated by André) as the land is too steep for dogs. The sheep are left for one night in stone paddocks, färricha, and their owners come and sort them.
We also talked to Beat Ruppen (who is head of the Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage Management Centre) and his brother-in-law Peter Jossen who have lived all their lives in Naters. They told us how their family moved seven times a year with the animals, up and down the mountains, and continued this practice until 1985 when Peter went to work for the bank.
Andre, Beat and Peter
We walked through the village of Blatten, with its attractive wooden buildings roofed with slate.
There is some new building going on. The Burgerschaft owns the land and buildings and decides who can rent land; people can only rent for 50 years at a time. Most of its income comes from the property and the rent paid by the Victorian Belalp Hotel, a popular tourist spot overlooking the Rhone valley.
The Swiss government recently passed a law restricting the building of new second homes to no more than 20 per cent of a municipality, which is a good thing. Beat expressed concern about an ugly new building near the hamlet of Geimen.
There were many footpaths leading out of the village, and we followed one down towards Naters.
On our way down the valley we looked at the irrigation systems, which I shall write about separately. We came to the farm, Geimenblatt, occupied by Beta and Peter’s family, next to where a glacier had flowed down to the Rhone, leaving beautifully smoothed rocks.
We went into the lovely farmhouse, 20 of us squeezing around the kitchen table. Beat’s wife Marie and her sister Anni provided us with a sumptuous lunch of local meat, cheese, bread and wine.
Marie and Anni
We walked on down the valley to meet the bus, through lovely meadows. I heard a cuckoo and blackcaps and saw a woodpecker similar to our green woodpecker. It was a great walk, but too short.
Although farming has of course changed, and for most farmers it is a part-time activity and not their main source of income, it was interesting for me to learn that there is commoning in the Alps and that transhumance is still practised.
Meadow at Geimenblatt