In a dizzying chaos of bells, unlike the meditative jangling synonymous with Alpine meadows, sheep jostle in a sea of moving mounds of wool. They leap through the air joyfully and clamber up one another’s backs. Some are spotted, some cream and others black, and a few have curling horns. In the midst, farmers wearing traditional felt hats stroll the pen, occasionally tripping as they reach for a sheep.
The Schafabtrieb – a traditional festival to celebrate sheep returning from high pastures at the end of the summer – is an important part of South Tyrolean culture. Today’s Schofschoad, as it is known in local dialect, is in Stilfs, a tangle of stocky white farmhouses dangling from a steep green flank high above the Vinschgau valley.
It is a wonderfully local affair: we found out about it only thanks to the owner of our holiday apartment, who had to call a friend to find out when it was taking place. Upon arrival in Stilfs, there was no sign of an event, and it was only after asking a smiley apron-clad sheep shearer on his way to the festivities that we eventually found our way here.
In a clearing at the top of a woodland track, we come across pens arranged alongside a hut selling beer and sausages and trailers bulging with bleating sheep. It’s like market day: locals are leaning, elbows on fences, as they peer into the enclosures. Young farm lads hop around with wide grins, looking to their apron-and-boot-clad grandmas for instruction as they single out sheep for shearing.
We watch as a bearded famer easily picks up one of the flock as if it were a toddler and manhandles it to the next pen. Another leans over his bleating ward, who is reclining and eagerly accepting chin tickles. A boy races around after one black-and-white-spotted specimen, falling flat on his face as he scrambles to catch a handful of wool. His brother gathers up another and plants a loving kiss on its muzzle. It’s like an elaborate and chaotic game of tag.
In the hazy blue distance, the snow-topped Ortler slumbers – a great hulk of ridged dolomite rock rising to the region’s highest point at 3,905 metres. In bucolic contrast, the Vinschgau sweeps in a tapestry of apple orchards far below, severed by the glacier-grey Etsch river. Apples are big business here – the valley produces an average of 350,000 tonnes every year – but livestock are also economically important.
As a result, villages far and wide host similar celebrations to today’s in a tradition of transhumance that dates back thousands of years. In the narrow Schnalstal valley, close to Merano, flocks of around 3,700 sheep and 300 goats climb over the 2,865-metre Hochjoch and 3,019-metre Niederjoch every June to reach the high alpine pastures of the Venter valley in nearby Austria, then return in September, in an event that is listed by UNESCO World Heritage. Many Abtriebe feature traditional music, dancing and dazzling catwalk-like parades of livestock wearing floral headdresses. Equally spectacular happenings can be found as far away as the Himalayas.
Now, the sheep in the ‘shorn’ pen seem to be heaving sighs of relief. It is after all, an unseasonably warm September day – and it no doubt feels tropical to them after their high-altitude sojourn. They sometimes venture beyond the tree line at around 2,300 metres above sea level, and our hikes during this holiday have been accompanied by the sound of their bells chiming and the sight of them tugging at grass on precipitous edges.
After a refreshing local beer, that the sheep could likely do with too, we leave. We pass our host and her young son, who has a huge bag of freshly shorn wool in his arms. The sun is beating down; chatter in local dialect fuses with the jangling bells. And we have a sense of having been totally immersed in local life if only for a morning.