Aikido, Creative Work, Photography & Documentary.

Cow Shepherd


A day and a night in the mountains with an Austrian cow shepherd. 

Adventures are personal things. The word can mean different things to different people; something we may take for granted, something 'small' such as going outside could be a big deal for someone. Equally, cycling across Syberia - unsupported - in winter - could be Majorcan bar owners idea of fun.

A few years ago I read the definition of adventure on a brown leather wristband given to me as a gift.

Adventure. Extreme circumstances, recounted in tranquility.

The quote doesn't assume adventures have to big, loud and adrenalin-fuelled. They can be quiet, intimate, reserved and deeply personal - or all of the above. This quote was never clearer until I spent a day and night in the mountains with Alex, an Austrian cow shepherd. 

I have been spending a lot of time working in Innsbruck; its a beautiful, calm city nestled in the Austrian Alps. When I travel to Tirol it’s usually for work; I rarely find time to explore. 

This time was different, cut to a three-hour drive from Innsbruck with a stop for supplies, not forgetting the bottle of Rum. The driving stopped, and climbing began, up towards the bottom of a sheer rock face that makes up Hochiss. Rising some 2,299 metres (7,543 ft), it is the highest mountain in the Brandenberg Alps.

Stunning doesn’t begin to describe the scenery. The path, marked by red and white took us over mountains streams, past waterfalls, through open meadows to a steep climb.

Despite the relatively modest altitude, my current Cornish, sea level blood cells struggled to fuel my legs; yet just as I started to slow, we arrived at the plateau. It was there, in the distance that I saw Alex and his dog Rexy. Alex wore old working clothing, leather boots, a traditional sun hat. As we came closer, his distinctive dark beard instantly conjured images of Grizzly Adams and other frontier men I had to be brought up watching on television. He was genuinely taking his role seriously, or maybe he had just lost a few marbles spending weeks on end alone in the mountains.

Alex isn’t a farmer. He is a social worker by profession, more used to herding young people than cattle. He stands about 5 feet 5 tall, dark hair and brown eyes, a medium build, slight ponch which he carries well. 

We sat down outside his accommodation and over cups of tea we chatted. The decision to leave his day to day life didn’t come easy; he missed his family and girlfriend, Teresa immensely. I got the impression his decision to work in the mountains for a year was a right passage of sorts. He had recently graduated and perhaps saw this as a chance to take stock of the last few years of hard work, you know, before settling down with a house, dog and career - one last adventure?

Rexy, on the other hand, is a veteran; an expert at cow herding, always looking out for clumsy visitors and was on constant vigil. She doesn’t chase sticks however, only rocks. She would frequently clean the areas around the huts by approaching the stone cautiously, sniffing it, clamping her jaws around it and moving it out of the camp.

The landscape was a mixture of hills and plains, with bright green grass growing for the cows to eat. Three camp - three stone huts were in a triangle shape, about 20 meters apart. The tip of which being Alex’s home for the next two months. He will spend six months with the cows, two of which are on the plateau. At both levels, he works alone, only with an occasional visitor for fellowship

His accommodation was rustic, comfy yet basic. Water had to be carried from a mountain stream, up a small hill to the hut which was a few hundred meters away. 

The kitchen and the way the light flooded into the room made it a lovely space to be within. It was also warm! The remaining accommodation was a sleeping area, small pantry and a storeroom. I planned to sleep outside, but with limited space free from a cow stampede I opted for indoors. Alex had the bed; so the floor and sleeping would do nicely.

The plateau had an otherworldly feel, mostly due to the sound. Sound travelled a lot farther; the proximately to the rocks emphasised small rocks fall, animals or human climbers braving the rock face. On the top of the mountains, you could just make out little ant-like shapes moving around. We were too far away to be seen, but it felt like a hundred eyes were on you.

There were two lakes, one which formed at the base of Hochiss and another closer to the huts. The far lake was beautiful; beautiful and cold! Alex prefers this lake due its secluded location, although a month in the high mountains had worn away some inhibitions. 

Day to day life was spent counting the cows, moving them to new pastures, checking they weren’t hurt, feeding them salt and looking after the huts. He told me we just missed the helicopter which came to collect a dead calf; you could see the event had affected him. The job was personal. It was inspiring how seriously he took his commitment, he was now concerned with the health of a second calf and had a vet on standby, he didn’t want another animal to die on his watch.

Of course, time moved slowly for him. Life was about caring for the animals first, then for himself. It's hard, but rewarding work he often said. The weather had the most significant effect on his mood, cold and wet days mirrored his personality and motivation. Keeping motivated was a challenge, but having visitors helped - although not too many, not all the time, he joked.

Before I knew it was time to leave Alex and his herd. During the 3 hours walk back down, and the 3 hours drive thereafter I found myself reflecting on his motivations for being up there. Most adventures, especially the ones I have faced alone had the habit of reminding me what I have left behind. Thoughts wander to about the daily lives of the people we know, allowing us to cherish those we will return too, and make sense of those we won’t.

This reflection is the by-product of the 'extreme circumstance', and only when we have time to reflect, in tranquillity, do we genuinely appreciate what the adventure has given us.

Months later, back in the UK I got word Alex hung up his hat, he successfully moved to the lower pastures and is now adjusting to daily life back in the city, preparing for a youth project with me in Cornwall in December. 

I’m curious to know what will motivate the next shepherd who will fill his dusty boots. Are they escaping from something? Ate they chasing that one last adventure?

Or perhaps months later when the job is done, surrounded by people they care about, next to a warm fire in a cosy pub they can recount their story and better understand how it changed them.