“Now you can hear the boys!” says Franz Hiesel, referring to the bulls who spend their summer on Gampernun-Alpe, an idyllic alpine pasture that is situated in the idyllic village Flirsch near St. Anton am Arlberg. From all corners of the region, farmers bring their breeding bulls to the only mountain pasture for male cows only in all Tyrol, some coming from as far as the Italian province of South Tyrol. Every extra mile is worth the effort when the bulls are strong and ready for breeding when they get home in autumn.
Franz Hiesel is sitting in front of the little hut, his binoculars dangling around his neck. His white, bushy beard gleams against his tanned forearms. Everything exudes calm and serenity, which seems a little surprising given the fact that this is where 40 bulls are gathered to graze and fill up on energy for the winter back home. Obviously, concentrated power and lots of testosterone not necessarily have to result in uncontrollable action and restless activity.
This place belongs to 15 surrounding communities. How did you get the job of running this place?
Franz Hiesel: I simply applied for it and they accepted me. For the first three years I worked with an old herdsman. He taught me everything. Then, one day, he broke his leg and I said to myself, well, I guess then I’ll have to do it on my own. And so I did, and I still do.
You are up here on your own all summer? Doesn't it get lonely?
Franz Hiesel: No, it doesn’t! You always have the mountains and the bulls. Just look at this view, this scenery! It is so peaceful and there are so many things that keep me busy. It’s important to stay busy. Sometimes a bull goes missing and I spend all day looking for him. And then I have to put away branches and stones and keep the paths in good condition. There is always something to do. I also get visits from my wife and a helper from the valley. So no, I don’t feel lonely up here.
AFTER 19 YEARS ON THE JOB: WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?
Franz Hiesel: Well, I regret retiring at age 57. I worked as a service technician for a heating company and one day they announced that we would have to start using computers and stuff. And then I told them they better look for some 17-year-old for writing bills on a computer. Today I see how much we depend on technology and realise I should have made the switch back then and learn how to use it. I can only stand by and watch with astonishment because I don’t understand any of it. But I also marvel at all the beauty up here and feel lucky for having this amazing job.
It’s a job Franz does with thoroughness and diligence. At times, avalanches and thunderstorms leave their marks on the pasture, meaning more work for Franz. Once a year, the mayors of the 15 communities owning Gampernun Alpe gather in the little hut to discuss what needs to be done in the following year.
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, DO YOU FEEL LIKE THIS PLACE IS ALSO YOURS?
Franz Hiesel: I said from the very beginning, that I want to run this place as if it were my own. That’s the only way it will work for me. It is very important to take good care of the meadows and improve them. I also did a lot of work on the hut, put up a new roof, installed a stove and solar panels. In all these years, no one ever told me, “No Franz, you can’t do that.” They really trust me.
TRUST. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU ALSO NEED FOR HERDING BULLS?
Franz Hiesel: Well, you know, there is always some risk in working with bulls, so I am never careless when I walk the meadows. But I know them and they know me. They recognise my beard. Also, I always talk to them. “How are you, boy? Your tootsies still fine? Your tummy alright?” So they are fine with me. It’s only strangers who sometimes make them bellow and paw the ground.
SO NOTHING EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?
Franz Hiesel: One day one of the bulls started charging me and I headed for the brook to jump in it. But somehow I ended up on the other side of the creek bed. Three days later my wife asked me where I got all the bruises. That’s when I realised that he must have pushed me and I just didn’t feel it in the heat of the moment.
The biggest of the bulls on the pasture weighs over a ton. Franz Hiesel recounts how one of them once moved a huge boulder. The power of these creatures is impressive, even for an experienced herdsman like Franz.
THE PASTURES COVER AN AREA OF 60 HECTARES, MUCH OF IT WOODLAND. HOW DO YOU KEEP TRACK OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING?
Franz Hiesel: Sometimes I wander the area all day long. That’s a good workout; I lose a few kilos every summer I spend up here because I walk so much. I like to check on every bull once every day. At least once. Twice is even better.
Oct. 21, 2016