What a Load of Old Bull

The Swiss farmers seem to like their electric fences. They use them to keep these guys under control (although given the Swiss love affair with all things bovine, perhaps the fences are actually there to keep us from bothering the big fellas) and are pretty much everywhere.

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[This guy is not your (my) friend]

The farms here seem almost completely organised by temporary electric fences with a few permanent barbed wire ones thrown in for good measure. The electric fences take the form of one, two or three cables supported by wooden or plastic fence posts. They can be reconfigured easily whenever animals need moving. Across tracks and footpaths that run through the farms, there is usually some kind of electric ‘gate’ – sometimes the cables have a plastic handle and hook at one end that you can unhook carefully when you want to pass through; other times there are two flexible ‘prongs’ sticking out from either side of the road. Presumably you only get a shock if you touch both at once but if you push one aside you can walk through. Sometimes the ‘gate’ is just a bit of cord attached to the wire that you can use to pull it up or down to step over or under. Fine for walkers, not great to do one handed as you try to manhandle an unsteady bike across.

At first these were a bit of an annoyance. Each time having to stop, get off, try to stand the bike up on the ever weakening stand, unhook the cables carefully, wheel through, stand the bike up again, rejoin the cables and head on your way. But from day 3 or 4 in the Jura I started to appreciate the fences a bit more. The route started not just heading along tracks through farms, but often straight through what was currently a field full of cows. Or bulls. This doesn’t sound like it should be much of a problem but somehow developed into a daily obstacle

The first time this happened I was just turning off the main track to the farm to head up a small trail into the hills. I came to a gate, on the other side of which were two youngish bulls. Hmmm. Delaying for a while I headed back down the track to go and take a photo of the valley, hoping they would have moved away by the time I got back. No. Only one thing for it then I guess, let’s make this quick. Holding the bike up with one hand I tried to undo the (normal) gate with the other. With the gate slightly open I tried to manoeuvre the bike round. This is actually pretty difficult one handed on an uneven hill. With one hand you can’t hold the bike steady and hold the brake at the same time. Because of it’s weight, the bike has a mind of it’s own, wanting to roll back down the hill. If you lose the balance the front wheel starts to twist and then off it goes. I imagine it’s much like trying to manhandle a small, wide, motorbike with just one hand. Doing it on rough ground, on a slope is worse. Adding the pressure of a couple of bulls about 5 metres away adds another element to it. I felt like I needed about three extra hands – one to hold the bike, another to work the gate and a third to wipe the sweat out of my eyes.

Anyway, trying not to attract attention to myself, in my white helmet and blue and red top, I clanged the gate round and puffed my way through with the bike. Trying to hold it up with one hand and one knee, I twisted round to bang the gate shut and push the stiff, noisy bolt across with the other hand.

The bulls were not fooled by my camouflage. I’m no expert of bovine body language but they seem to be able to give you ‘The Look’ that I thought only girls could manage. A slightly lowered head, very direct look and a stamp or two of hooves seemed fairly aggressive to me so I looked down, and shuffled the bike over the lumpy ground along the track away from the bills as fast (and subtly) as I could. They didn’t follow but a few metres away from the trail, between me and the safety of the electric gate at the other end of the small field was a third bull. Keep walking Chris, head down, shuffle away. This guy definitely didn’t like me impinging on his territory and as I passed him, stamped his foot and took a couple of little trots towards me. I kept shuffling on, heaving the bike over ruts and big sods of earth and was, for the first time, very happy to be letting myself through the electric fence to the other side. Phew. Let’s hope there aren’t many more bulls around. How wrong I was. This area is a bit like the wild west up on the hills and there are cattle everywhere. Bull and cow avoidance, along with pushing uphill, was to become a theme of the week.

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[The Look (safely taken from the other side of an electric fence)]

After pushing up a tortuously steep bit of track, passing through a farm and then some forest, I entered a big field. As I made my way across the top of the field on the track I saw a whole bunch of cows or bulls right on the track. The field was on a curved hill so I couldn’t see past the animals to where I needed to get to. Approaching them on bike, I got ‘The Look’ as they all stood blocking the trail (on purpose, I’m sure). Not exactly sure where I was heading to on the other side, I retreated back towards the gate to drop the bike and try to work out a plan of attack. The field was on quite a slope and pretty lumpy so biking with any control off the track was a bit tricky. I walked down the hill a bit to see if I could get round the crowd of animals. As it saw me, a huge beast further down the the field stood up and let out a big “Mooooo” in my direction. Aggressive? Friendly? How the hell should I know. Back to the main body of animals. Same response. A very direct look and a little stamp. These didn’t all look like bulls but there were also young cows in the field so maybe the mothers get protective of their young? After approaching and retreating a few times with the same response, and another larger animal turning up and stamping his feet, I toyed with the idea of just going for it but I couldn’t see round the hill to see whether I could get out of the field at the other side.

This was ridiculous and I must have been here half an hour by now so I started to look for another route. I could go back sheepishly through the farm and head up the road but that seemed (more) wimpish. Instead, sliding under the electric fence running along the top of the field next to the track into another field which didn’t seem to have any animals in it, I headed up to the top of this field which was at the top of the hill. Beyond that field was another with a whole herd of animals who all seemed very interested in me as soon as I appeared. So I stayed in the second field and made my way around, parallel to the original track. It looked like the track headed out of an open gateway where about twenty cows / bulls were congregated, into the next field over. But there was no fence between the field and I was now in and the farther field which the track continued through, heading to another farm. A way through! I headed back to the bike, unloaded everything, passed it over the electric fence, half pushed the bike under, slid under myself and then hauled the bike through. Loaded up again, pushing the bike up and across the lumpy field I got parallel to the gate, still overrun with cows, from where it was all downhill to the other side. Hopping on, I bounced and slid my way across the field, drawing more ‘Looks’ from the cows but heading away from them fast enough to make my break for freedom, feeling like Steve McQueen. Actually that’s rubbish, I have only just thought that I should have felt like Steve McQueen. I actually felt very sheepish and a bit ridiculous, and sure that the farmer had been watching the whole saga wondering why the hell I hadn’t just pootled my way past these harmless pets. It was only as I manoeuvred my way through the gate to the farm at the other side, and saw this sign, and then another a few miles further on that said ‘Suckling cows protect their young – keep your distance’, that I felt slightly less ridiculous.

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[Maybe this farmer had a special breed of unusually aggressive animals (in case you can’t read it, the sign says that the farmer takes no responsibility for any accidents involving his animals)?]

Cow and bull avoidance then became a daily activity for the next few days. On day five of this trail, up on the plains on top of the Jura, where it feels like the wild west with herds of cows and horses everywhere, I rode across a field towards a gate in the electric fence, directly in front of which sat 3 cows. Feeling bolder by now I decided to confidently (on the outside at least) head straight for them, sure they would move. As I got within 20 metres, they stood up as one, lowered their heads, gave me ‘The Look’ and each stamped a foot. I nervously peeled off to the right, bounced across the field to the electric fence and sheepishly slid under, pulling the bike after me.

This wasn’t quite how I’d imagined it would be!

Posted in London to Switzerland (2011) and tagged , .

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