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Regarding cow bells: why, and does it harm the cow?

    Switzerland why cow bell

    Cow bells are one of the key symbols for Swiss tourism. Every TV show, vlog and podcast featuring Switzerland is going to jam a few jingles in somewhere, and even Zürich airport plays a recording of bells when you are on the little shuttle transferring to customs.

    If you just want to know where to find cows wearing bells in Switzerland, then the answer is pretty much anywhere. Take a walk in any rural area – especially in the mountains – and you will likely hear the bells before too long.


    Quite simply they are used to help you find your cows.

    I have seen it suggested that it is also used to scare off/warn of predators, or to train the neck muscles to improve the meat quality. Neither of which I have seen any evidence for (at least not in it actually working, it has been shown elsewhere that bells unsurprisingly work more like lunch bells and attract predators).

    Historically fencing off parts of a mountainside would have been absurdly expensive and impractical, so bells let you find your cows in the fog or at night. Bells were/are used around the world for this, but (in my experience at least) the cow bells in the Alps seem to be the biggest and loudest. They are certainly effective. It takes a while to get used to hearing faint but clear bells clanging, looking around, and then realising that the little cow shaped dots far away are actually the source of the noise.

    These days they are not really needed. Setting up confined areas with a few plastic poles and some electric wires is cheap and easy (and you will find it done so everywhere in Switzerland). Even in larger pastures with areas that are out of sight a GPS tracker would do the job easily (they use GPS trackers to help tourists find the Black Nosed Sheep near Zermatt).

    Bells are kept in large part for tradition and so you will still see them everywhere. Not only on high meadows, but even in properly fenced enclosures in the middle of towns and villages where you could not possibly lose sight of anything in even the worst conditions. Sometimes every cow in a group of a hundred has a bell, sometimes just one or two, sometimes none.

    The size, material and corresponding sound and range of the bell varies too. There are two types: those made from cast metal (Glocken) and battered metal sheets (Treicheln).

    Does it harm the cow?

    There has been concern that the constant loud noise will cause mental and/or physical harm to the cows. I have never seen a cow in obvious distress, but that is only anecdotal evidence on cows I have just observed for a few minutes.

    Cows wear the bells for months at a time during summer. The bigger bells are loud and heavy. Quite how loud and heavy will vary, but the scientific articles on this used bells weighing 5.5 kg (approx. 1% of the cows body weight) and recorded amplitudes between 90 and 113 dB at a distance of 20 cm.

    90 dB being roughly comparable to a hair dryer, and the 120 dB upper limit approaching that of a chainsaw / jackhammer. Short exposure to 110 dB level noise can cause damage in humans, and even 80 dB causes damage through continuous exposure (NIOSH factsheet). It has been shown that cows are sensitive to noise – Pesenka 2016 – and that they are possibly even more sensitive than human ears at certain frequencies (I have seen that quoted but I have yet to find a reliable article on this or invest the time to do a serious analysis).

    There is very little reliable scientific data on this topic, there are just two published peer reviewed studies by a single group of authors:

    • Do Bells Affect Behaviour and Heart Rate Variability in Grazing Dairy Cows? (2015). 19 cows split into 3 groups (no bell, silent bell, loud bell) recorded over 3 days. Results suggested the bell caused behavioural changes, but the study is very short term.
    • Regular Exposure to Cowbells Affects the Behavioral Reactivity to a Noise Stimulus in Dairy Cows (2017). 96 cows tested for their acoustic perception. Results suggest there is no severe hearing impediment, but did suggest behavioural changes including their eating habits.
    • Not a published article, but the thesis by the lead author of the papers for her PhD work at ETHZ includes some further non peer-reviewed results. The summary is: ”Taken together, the results of this thesis show that the short-term exposure to a non-uniform sound (here: chime of a bell) can be more aversive than a uniform sound (here: sinusoidal tone). Behavioural changes suggest that the behaviour of cows is disturbed by the medium-term exposure to hearing and wearing a bell continuously over 3 days, without indication of habituation to the bell. In the long-term, bell exposure throughout summer season for several years did not lead to deafness in dairy cows. However, a 85 dB stimulus triggered increased arousal and avoidance compared to a 65 dB stim-ulus. Thus, exposing goats and cows to non-uniform sounds of more than 85 dB, e.g. bells should be avoided whenever possible in goat and cow husbandry.”

    So there is evidence that the cows are disturbed by the bells, but a detailed systematic understanding of how much and the long term effects have yet to be shown (though it seems reasonable to assume they are not negligible). The studies are a few years old now and there is no further work by the authors, or citations from relevant papers. Given how niche the topic is I doubt we are going to see much more on this in the near future.

    The early work by the group surfaced in the Swiss paper Schweiz am Sonntag in 2014 and went viral with a series of articles in newspapers around the world (eg: Time). Most of these seemed to over-react somewhat making the conclusion stronger and suggesting changes to reduce the noise or remove the bells would be likely to happen.

    Is the use of cow bells supported by the Swiss?

    For the most part it seems that the use is supported by the Swiss population as being a very Swiss thing, and unless some very damning studies come out it isn’t likely to change (though I can’t give any study or evidence to support that). It is an important association for the tourism industry; even taking the connecting tram between terminals at Zürich airport you get the sound of cow bells played at you, and souvenir cow bells are on sale in every tourist area.

    There are concerns for the animal welfare from some people, but these are the minority. Most famously the activism of one lady resulted in her application to become Swiss being twice rejected by her village (she now has it).

    In other cases it has led to noise complaints. For example there was a long running legal battle in a village in Germany.

    The farmers themselves who were interviewed about this reacted about as positively as you would expect from one of the more conservative groups in society on being told that they might have to change how they do something (see this video). There are some farmers who don’t put the bells on for the sake of the cow’s health, but they are in the minority.

    I take the approach that I still enjoy them as a very Swiss/Alpine thing, but at the same time do worry about what it is like for the cows with the larger bells.

    Any other bell based stuff?

    There are traditions that bells scare away evil spirits. You can sometimes see a group of man doing what can best be described as a “bell march” to chase away evil spirits (especially around New Years). This was also adopted by the ‘Freiheitstrychler’s who protested against the Corona vaccination/laws in Switzerland.

    Tourist shops sell mostly little cheap tinkley things as trinkets. You can buy the real bells, just expect to pay 200 CHF or more. seems to be the go to for ordering any kind of bell you could possibly want including the biggest serious (and expensive) proper cow bells (then decide who or what it is ethical to put the bell on). You can even cast your own cow bell with them, though that is probably also rather expensive.

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