So there I was, on a pristine Alpine mountainside in Switzerland. Having just taken a tram to the top of the Matterhorn, and descended down into a glacier via tunnels that allow you to walk through the huge ice shelf, I was now halfway back down the mountain just above Zermatt, in a little village called Furi.
And I was watching a beauty contest for sheep.
Not exactly what I was expecting to be doing on a trip to Switzerland, my first in this beautiful, friendly country in more than twenty years. And on a day that just also happened to be my birthday.
Happy birthday to me, sheep. Unfortunately, they stole the show from me.
The traditional Shepherd Festival of Furi is very much not a tourist attraction. It’s a way of life here, in a small village miles from anywhere, set amid emerald green meadows and typical Swiss chalet homes beneath the towering snow-topped Alps. As my group came down to Furi, the annual festival was well underway. It was explained that the local shepherds were pitting their Valais blacknose sheep against each other, in a contest to determine the best-looking sheep. Or, more precisely, the best-coiffed sheep.
Which led me to wonder, of course, exactly how does one coiff a sheep? And more importantly, why?
I quote from the event webpage: “That day offers plenty of opportunities to marvel at the attractive and affectionately coiffed sheep.”
As it turns out, these sheep are the pride of the region, and the shepherd who is awarded the best-coiffed sheep not only has bragging rights, but also will find himself with his sheep in demand for breeding and what-not. In other words, he owns the Belle of the Ball.
We watched as each sheep was brought forward from a side pen, one at a time into the main pen. There, they were carefully looked over by the judges. Valais blacknose sheep are rather attractive, I had to admit. They seem well-suited to the colder Alpine climate, with their thick woolly outercoat and their cute head of…well, yes, coiffed ringlets. Their black faces and leg markings add to their unusual look.
As the judging of dozens of sheep continued, each score being tallied on a board, we wandered to the tents set up adjacent to partake of the Shepherd Festival food — bratwurst and pork chops, potato salad and raclette, the Swiss melted cheese specialty. Also on the menu, in rather poor taste I thought, was lamb chops. I wondered if the blacknose sheep across the dirt road knew about this. Maybe that was why some of them were bleating so plaintively.
After lunch I went back to the judging arena, where things were getting serious. The semi-finalists had been chosen and were herded into a separate pen. One by one, the judges inspected them further, conferred amongst themselves, and eliminated the lesser sheep. I had my bets pinned on one in particular, a smaller girl with particularly cute curls hanging over her eyes. My friend Jerry had his favorite, who he had learned was named Diana.
But both of them were eliminated as the judging came down to the wire. When Diana was voted out and unceremoniously shoved out of the pen, she ran to the opposite wall and threw herself against it in protest. I didn’t blame her; that judging seemed harsh.
At last a winner was declared — Tina.
I’m pretty sure that the other sheep got drunk that night in disgrace.