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Why Do Cows Wear Bells? (And Do They Like Them?)

Cow bells are still common in parts of Austria, Switzerland, and the south of Germany. They are mostly worn out of respect for tradition, but do have some real world utility for helping farmers locate their cattle, who are allowed to roam and graze freely on the steep and rugged slopes of the Alpine valleys.

Why do cows wear bells?

In this article, we’ll look at cow bells in more detail, find out the interesting historical uses for them as well as the traditional festivals and celebrations where they are used. We’ll also look at some modern research around whether or not forcing cows to wear bells is ethical.

Why Do Cows Wear Cow Bells?

Cowbells can seem a little archaic now. Surely farmers have GPS or electronic tags or something to track their cattle, what use would a bell be?

There are many reasons why cows wear bells, and it’s not just to find them when they get lost. Bells ward off predators, help farmers find cows at night, help identify specific cows and herds (similar to a nametag or cattle brand) and there is a huge traditional element to cowbells too, especially in the alpine countries and places with a high German/Swiss diaspora.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons cows wear bells:

1: Tradition

One reason that’s overlooked is simply that wearing bells is traditional for cattle in many alpine countries and there are deep cultural traditions, festivals, and practices centered around cows.

The most well-known example is the annual Almabtrieb festival in Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland. These annual celebrations mark the end of the summer when cows are artistically decorated with religious symbols and large bells and driven from their summer pastures to the barns where they spend the winters.

Read More: How Much Grazing Land Do Cows Need?

2: To Help The Farmer Locate Them

If you think about the areas where cows commonly wear bells, you have the Swiss Alps, the Austrian Alps, and the German Alps. Notice something in common between each of these places? (It’s the alps)

Cow bells were traditionally used to help farmers locate their cattle, as the low ringing of the bells would resonate throughout the mountainous alpine valleys where their views were obstructed. 

Many farmers still use the bells for this reason today, especially in areas like the alps where cattle are allowed to roam freely during the summer months.

3: Identification

There are over 10,000 cattle farmers in the region of South Tyrol on the Italian-Austrian border alone. 

Traditionally, cow bells and decoration were used to identify cows from different families’ herds, similar to how branding or ear tags are used today for cattle, and spraypaint used for sheep. The colorful collars the bells hang on were unique to each family, although nowadays the unique designs are usually only worn during traditional festivals.

Are Cow Bells Cruel? (Or Do Cows Like Them?)

Cow bells aren’t cruel as long as they are not too big and not too loud.

When thinking about cow bells, many people have an image of the large, unwieldy 20kg brass bells that cows wear around their necks for parades and cattle shows, but these are completely different to the small bells cows wear around their necks on the pasture.

There is some evidence that heavier, louder bells are uncomfortable for cows. In one study by the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland, it was found that large cow bells affected cows’ sleeping patterns, which is clear evidence that the bells were causing discomfort.

Read More: Do Cows Lie Down To Sleep?

When this study was first widely reported in 2014, Swiss farmers hit back, claiming that the larger bells mentioned in the study were only used for ceremonial occasions and that cowbells were a core part of Alpine culture.

The same study also noted that cows wearing bells had no difference in heart rate from cows without. From this we can infer that the large decorative bells cause the cows discomfort when they are trying to sleep, but have a minimal effect on them through the day.

Do Other Animals Other Than Cows Wear Bells?

Yes, bells on animals are popular in many cultures throughout the world. Even in Europe and North America we commonly put bells on our domestic housecat collars, right? It’s the same idea with other animals.

Bells are most common on grazing livestock. Cows, goats, and sheep are the most common, since they graze on wide open pastures, but depending on where you are in the world, you may also see reindeer, donkeys, alpacas, and bison wearing big bells to help the farmer find them.

Even outside of livestock, the principle of adding a bell to an animal’s collar is well-known. Lots of domestic housecats have small bells on their collars.

Conclusion

To sum up, cows wear bells mostly because of tradition. Nowadays, farmers have so many tracking options available to them that the historical function of cowbells are largely moot.

In spite of this, cattle bells still have some utility, enabling farmers to locate their cattle when they are closeby but out of sight.

In many alpine communities, especially in the regions of Western Austria and Eastern and Souther Switzerland, cattle-driving is entrenched in the local culture, and large decorative bells are part of the traditions of the area.

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