On a farm in Rheinau, northern Switzerland, Martin Ott admires the pale, curved horns of dozens of cows contentedly munching hay — and sees not just an Alpine icon but a sign of order in the world.
“The horn was always a symbol that nature has its own dignity,” Mr Ott says.
Now the horn is also political. In one of Switzerland’s frequent national referendums on Sunday, voters are in effect being asked to pay for horns, by deciding whether the state should subsidise farmers who choose not to remove animals’ horns or eliminate them via breeding.
Because of such techniques three-quarters of Swiss cows, and one-third of goats, have no horns. Advocates of removal argue it makes livestock easier to keep and reduces injuries to humans and animals.
But Mr Ott, who runs a green farming school in Rheinau and has written a book on “understanding cows”, said a Yes vote would correct an evil of modern agriculture.
Horns are used for scratching, cooling, feeling and communicating, he said as he walked through the farm’s cattle shed. “The horns amplify what they want to say. It has to do with dignity.”
Switzerland’s system of direct democracy requires only 100,000 signatures for a proposition to be put to the vote, and in the past has led to outcomes such as legally binding curbs on executive pay and road haulage through the Alps.
Sunday’s vote coincides with a separate referendum on a proposal from the powerful, nationalist Swiss People’s Party to assert the supremacy of the Swiss constitution over international treaties. The “self-determination initiative” is meant to bolster Switzerland’s independence and national identity, even if it threatens relations with the EU.
The “cow horn” vote has similar ambitions, said Mr Ott, who launched the referendum initiative with Armin Capaul, a 67-year old farmer from Jura in western Switzerland. “It is self-determination for cows.”
His initiative found the backing needed to go ahead in a country whose landscape was largely shaped by cow pastures. Until industrialisation in the 19th century, “the cow was the most important economic entity in Switzerland,” according to Marc Valance, author of Die Schweizer Kuh, which chronicles the animal’s importance as an “unofficial national symbol”.
Historically, the horned cow reflected Swiss independence and military strength. It has also epitomised “motherly characteristics — love, milk and looking after calves,” said Mr Valance. The cow “became a symbol that held the Swiss confederation together, it symbolised unity”.
Opinion polls suggest Sunday’s vote will be close. The motion has been worded to maximise support: it does not ban horn culling, for instance.
Switzerland’s government urges a No vote, disputing the idea that cows suffer significantly without their horns and saying decisions should be left to farmers.
Johann Schneider-Ammann, agriculture minister, said that horned cows often needed to be tied up — and that for animal welfare a Yes vote would be an own goal. The government says the constitution already requires it to support animal friendly farming.
Images of cows used extensively to market Swiss products and tourism normally have horns: the question for voters on Sunday is whether agriculture should more closely reflect that marketed ideal. “A cow without horns is not a real cow. It’s a freak,” said Mr Valance. “In the real world, a minority of cows in Switzerland have horns — but in adverts they all do.”
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