Our Beef with the Cow

During our recent photo trips to alpine Bavaria, Slovenia, Italy, and Austria, several things stood out prominently:

Breathtaking mountain peaks and peaceful high-alpine meadows filled with wildflowers


Gorgeous traditional wooden farmhouses and balconies . . .

. . . overflowing with colorful cascading geraniums and peonies are every family’s pride and joy. Depending on balcony length, 500-1000 Euros (and even more) are allocated for this flower abundance in household budgets each year.

alpine farm house with flowers on balcony

Catholicism reigns in the Alps . . .

. . . and infuses the local culture in many meaningful ways. It also provides beautiful churches and chapels for us to photograph, cemeteries with rod-iron crosses, colorful religious processions with gorgeous ancient costumes, and rousing traditional music. One cannot escape wooden sculptures of the crucified Jesus in any public or private space and at any imaginable size — a constant presence.

alpine Catholic shrine

A sanity-saving tip!

With religion having such a strong cultural influence in alpine communities, church bells are practically replacing alarm clocks. Try to get a hotel room as far away as possible from the village church if you don’t want to be catapulted out of bed at 7am ready to shoot the source of the earsplitting noise, romantic as it may be.


But now to the cows:

ski-gondola-italyThe high alpine meadows that you can very easily access via chairlifts or ski gondolas (as well as with the now ubiquitous electric bike or on foot) are being used as grazing fields for cattle in the spring and summer.

Now, a few cows, cow pies, and cowbells romantically chiming in the thin air definitely provide lots of alpine charm and Heidi appeal. Plus think of all the wonderfully flavorful milk, butter, beef, and cheeses these creatures gift us with. However, an overabundance of cows and cow pies can destroy the alpine meadows and stink up not just the high alpine idyll but on a warm day, infuse the village in the valley with Eau de Boeuf. We now know which areas to avoid. 


As you peacefully hike along, you’ll find signs warning you to not pet the cows, make a wide berth around them when you encounter them unmovable in the middle of your hiking trail, and never ever get between a calf and its mother (I wonder if bear spray might work).

Jim, our friend Frits and I hiked along a trail through such a meadow a few years ago when a curious young cow approached Jim, most likely wondering what American smells like. Jim was visibly flattered by the bovine attention — they do have lovely eyes! The mother, however, took exception and charged him, horns lowered in attack mode. While Frits and I sensibly took off in the opposite direction, Jim fled from mother cow at superhuman speed over uneven terrain, tripod flailing, as a ton of creature hurled itself after him. Once outside her territorial meadow, all was well. Jim, however, did not feel supported by the rest of us during his scary “running of the cow.” I can’t blame him but it was an “every person for themselves” situation. Thankfully, in all our many years of alpine adventures in Europe, this only happened once and now we know.


This could also be an “Ode to the Cow”

Maybe the traditional relocation of the creatures from the valley to juicy alpine meadows each spring inspired city dwellers in the early 18th century to follow their hoof steps with enthusiasm for nature, healthy air, and wholesome food. This then morphed into winter tourism in the late 1960s and led to the construction of the ski lifts we now happily use to get up to 9000 feet elevation and 360 stunning views of snow-covered mountain peaks with very little effort.

OK. Now about the (our) beef:

Did you know that cows are prolific methane producers and have a major impact on the environment? The beef and dairy cattle industry is one of the main contributors to global greenhouse gases. Cows generate methane in two main ways: through their digestion and through their waste. Cows and sheep are part of a group of animals called ruminants. These creatures’ stomachs are set up in a way that the stuff they munch on later gets regurgitated (yum!) to finish the digestive process. As grass and other vegetation ferments in the cow’s stomach, it produces methane which is then expelled by the cow mainly through belching. Nice!


However, we do owe a lot to the humble alpine cow:

yellow-flowers-owl-italy. . . high alpine farms, tasty grass/herb-fed food, ancient customs of celebrating their march up to the high alpine meadows in the spring, and their return to the valley in the fall. Cows are part of the high alpine tableau and the sound and olfactory experience. These alpine cows most likely do not contribute a whole lot to global warming but the large-scale cattle industry most certainly does, which makes our dinner choices a little more intentional. Admittedly, we do love (and eat) rich alpine butter, cheeses, yogurt, speck, and goulash but we don’t consume a ton of beef.

We love the alpine cultures and landscapes of Europe and we’d like to share with you the most idyllic spots in Italy and Slovenia (yes, some cows included) on our new Alpine Italy & Slovenia Photo Tour in 2023. Click here for details »

To view more of Jim’s images on 500px click here or check out his photo gallery here.