Changing economy and climate hit Austria’s Alpine pastures

Economic changes and climate change are taking their toll on the Austrian landscape and threatening the future of an old cattle tradition.

Changing economy and climate hit Austria's Alpine pastures
Cows leave their summer pastures during the annual ceremonial so-called 'Almabtrieb' (cattle drive), on September 18, 2020 in Tyrol's Karwendel Alpine nature park near Pertisau, Austria. AFP

With tender care, Sepp Rieser adorns the bulky heads of his reluctant cows with flower wreaths, adds some more fir twigs, and adjusts the large bells around their necks.

“I've been doing this since I was a little boy,” Rieser says of the ancestral tradition in which cattle are decorated for their journey from the high Alpine Gramai pasture in Austria's western Tyrol state, where they graze all summer long, to the valley below where they'll spend the harsh winter months.

To Rieser, the festivities surrounding this journey to the village of Pertisau in the Karwendel mountains are as important as his birthday or Christmas.

Images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary feature in the adornments of his 90-strong herd, reflecting the region's strong Catholic heritage.

Tyrolian farmers decorate cows with bells and flowers during the annual ceremonial so-called 'Almabtrieb' (cattle drive), on September 18, 2020 at Gramai-Alm in Tyrol's Karwendel Alpine nature park near Pertisau, Austria. JOE KLAMAR / AFP

But it could soon be a relic of the past: Sweeping economic changes as well as climate change are taking their toll on the landscape and threatening the future of the tradition as well as its bovine stars.

The small-scale farms that dominate Tyrol have become economically unviable, forcing thousands of farmers to pivot to more reliable sources of income.

As a result, more than 25,000 cows have disappeared over the past decade, and with them the pastures they used to graze on, according to figures from the agriculture ministry.

The foundation of life

Within the past two decades, around 1,250 pastures in Tyrol alone have been left to revert to nature, a development that is also affecting other regions of the Alps, from southeastern France through Switzerland, as well as parts of Italy, Germany and Slovenia.

In Tyrol, where hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter are the mainstays of the economy, the impact is particularly distinct, Rieser explains as he puts the finishing touches on his cow's halter, engraved with his name and three Edelweiss flowers.

Taking the cows to the pastures “is very important, firstly for the cows' fitness, their longevity and their health, and of course also to maintain the pastures and the entire landscape,” Rieser tells AFP at an altitude of more than 1,260 metres (4,130 feet), where his herd spends the summer grazing on fragrant meadows.

Cows and mountain pastures, says Rieser, “are the foundation of our lives.”

Cows decorated with bells and flowers leave their summer pastures during the annual ceremonial so-called 'Almabtrieb' (cattle drive), on September 18, 2020 at Gramai-Alm in Tyrol's Karwendel Alpine nature park near Pertisau, Austria. JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Without cows, pastures can quickly become overgrown with shrubs and forests, altering the landscape and making it impassible, according to Jasmin Duregger, a climate change expert at Greenpeace Austria.

Meanwhile slippery nard grass has already begun to take over many pastures, increasing the risk of avalanches, says Duregger.

“When pastures become overgrown with shrubs and trees, vital plants are lost as well as rare herbs and flowers,” he adds.

'Summers are coming sooner'

Climate change is only accelerating this effect. Gottfried Brunner, who has tended Rieser's cows for 10 consecutive summers, has been noticing these changes.

“Summers are coming sooner,” he says while the cattle are guided past an iridescent mountain lake.

The average annual temperature between 1981 and 2010 was 6.9 degrees Celsius (44.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in Austria, but since then, each year has been well above that level.

Last year, the figure rose to 8.5 degrees — 1.6 degrees above the previous median.

“That means we have a prolonged period of vegetation during which more herbs, grass and shrubs can grow,” which has increased the feed by as much as 20 percent, Duregger says. “The cows simply can't keep up with grazing.”

More intense precipitation and sweltering heat waves are among the changes Rieser has noticed. “Climate change is something we can see today,” he says sternly. 

After treading down the steep mountainside for about one and a half hours, the cows finally arrive in Pertisau, cheered on by hundreds of excited spectators.

Cows decorated with bells and flowers are leaving their summer pastures during the annual ceremonial so-called 'Almabtrieb' (cattle drive), on September 18, 2020 at Gramai-Alm in Tyrol's Karwendel Alpine nature park near Pertisau, Austria.  JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Having travelled three hours to join, Karin Polzl beams as the cows amble past. For the festivities, Polzl has put on a T-shirt with a cow printed on it. 

“I love these animals,” she says, speaking to AFP about the collection of cow figurines at her house.

“I think it's very sad that this tradition, the cows and pastures are at risk,” she says. Like so many here, she hopes that they'll endure — beyond her glass cabinet. 

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EXPLAINED: Is there much poverty in Austria?

Austria is known for being a rich country, but there is a considerable part of its population with significant material and social disadvantage.

EXPLAINED: Is there much poverty in Austria?

Austria is generally seen as a rich country, and its cities often rank top in quality of life. According to data from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Austria’s gross domestic product (GDP) is on par with the OECD’s best performing countries, and inequality is lower than in most advanced countries.

Several other indicators also show how rich the country is – including the fact that about 72 percent of people aged 15 to 64 in Austria have a paid job, above the OECD employment average of 66 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why is Austria so rich?

However obviously not every household enjoys the same standard of living in Austria. Austrian authorities are very clear when they say, “yes, poverty also exists in Austria”.

According to the country’s data agency Statistik Austria, about 17.3 percent of the people in private households (around 1.5 million people) are at risk of poverty or exclusion.

This means people who are in “significant material and social disadvantage” have a low household income relative to the median of the population or have no or very low “labour intensity” – meaning that they are unemployed or marginally employed.

What is considered poverty?

Poverty always means a lack of opportunities, according to the Austrian Die Armutskonferenz, a network association that fights poverty and social exclusion in Austria.

A “significant material deprivation”, the term for manifested poverty, happens when low incomes are associated with restrictions in central areas of life. For example, not being able to replace worn clothes, eat healthily, not being able to keep a home properly warm or cover unexpected expenses.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria’s new finance measures could benefit you

“Poverty is not only affected by those who sleep on the street or in cardboard boxes. In rich countries such as Austria, poverty is often only visible at second glance.”, Armutskonferenz says.

Those who live in poverty in Austria often experience exclusion, loneliness, and isolation – they can no longer afford to invite friends and family to dinner or occasionally go to the cinema, for example.

poverty austria

A man begs for money on the Ring street near the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria on April 8, 2021. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Who are the people at risk of poverty?

Children, women in old age, single parents, the long-term unemployed, and people without Austrian citizenship are particularly at risk, according to Statistik Austria.

A quarter of those affected by poverty in Austria are younger than 26 years old and dependent on their parents, who are most likely immigrants, unemployed, single parents or have jobs that cannot support a family.

READ ALSO: Cost of living: Where are rents rising fastest in Austria?

Women are particularly affected because they often are the primary (if not sole) carers in a family, staying at home or taking minor jobs instead of searching for full-time employment.

Moreover, since Austria’s welfare state is strongly linked to the labour market, women are often marginalised.

Where in Austria are those at risk of poverty?

A federal study shows that Vienna has the highest percentage of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion, 27 percent. While in Austria, the rate of people at risk is approximately 17 percent, in Vorarlberg, that number reaches 24 percent.

In Carinthia, 17 percent of the population is considered at risk, followed by Tyrol (16) and Styria (15). Salzburg and Burgenland have 13 percent of the people just within the threshold, and Lower Austria and Upper Austria have the lowest rates, at 12 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Statistik: Quote der Armuts- oder Ausgrenzungsgefährdung in Österreich nach Bundesländern im Dreijahresdurchschnitt 2019 bis 2021 | Statista
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What does Austria do to prevent poverty?

Austria has a strong welfare state which reduces the risk of poverty and protects most of the population from it – especially during crises such as the Covid pandemic.

Social benefits reduce the risk of poverty from 45 percent to 14.7 percent in adverse situations, according to Armutskonferenz. Unemployment benefits, emergency and minimum security, and housing and long-term care allowance have the most significant impact.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to claim your €150 energy discount in Austria

However, associations call on the government to implement further measures to combat and prevent poverty. For example, they ask for awareness-raising regarding approaches to minorities and marginalised people, improvement of allowances and family schemes, and more offers of free activities.

Social and care groups also ask for measures to reduce educational inequality, saying it is necessary to ensure education completion for all children – which will help prevent child poverty.

For young people, they claim it is necessary to fight unemployment and offer diversified education and training options.

How can I help reduce poverty in Austria?

There are several known and renowned associations that fight poverty in Austria. Armutskonferenz is one, but Caritas is also a very well-known organisation.

You can also get involved politically and voice demands for better policies and government assistance. It is also essential, the organisations say, to help ensure that prejudices and stereotypes concerning poverty experiences are not spread so that people in this situation can still have opportunities in life.