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In the Alps, hikers on the trails and cows in the pasture make for perilous pairings

Reinhard Pfurtscheller feeds the cows and calves on his farm in the Austrian Alps. (Lena Mucha/for The Washington Post)

NEUSTIFT IM STUBAITAL, Austria — To Reinhard Pfurtscheller, the land he farmed high in the Alps was always a slice of paradise. He’d wake up in a cabin more than 300 years old, cows already wandering the flower-speckled meadows, snow-capped peaks all around. “There’s nothing more beautiful,” he said.

Until that warm July afternoon when he watched medics on his pasture zipping shut a body bag.

As the helicopter took off with the victim, Pfurtscheller learned that a 45-year-old hiker from Germany had been brutally assaulted, sustaining grievous injuries to her chest and heart. The farmer was well acquainted with her killers: Bea, Flower, Raven and his other cows.

Across the Alps, such attacks once were a shocking rarity. No longer. Amid the sweeping economic changes jeopardizing farmers’ future, the creatures that for decades have defined the region’s landscape and culture — bovine stars of tourism campaigns — have become liabilities.

Another hiker was killed a year after the German woman died in 2014, and another in 2017. Statistics aren’t kept by Austrian, Swiss, Italian or French authorities, but media reports of incidents have become increasingly common. A young mother, her baby strapped to her back, was trampled; both lived. A couple was run off a cliff, surviving despite tumbling 50 feet.

Nowadays, signs warning tourists in German, English, French and Italian are ubiquitous: Cross pastures at your own risk. Hotels display brochures on how to stay safe. Olympic skiers and famous actors help to raise awareness in TV spots and online videos, often stressing “the mountain pasture is no petting zoo.” A pilot project in Switzerland will soon launch an app that hikers can use to track the location of free-roaming herds and steer clear.

Yet this summer, with many Europeans yearning for the outdoors after months of coronavirus lockdowns, there are worries that the hiking season will result in even more attacks. Since June, at least nine have been reported. One involved an 8-year-old boy in southern Germany who had to be airlifted to a hospital.

“Some might think this isn’t serious,” said Andreas Freisinger, an optician living near Vienna in the town of Bad Vöslau. “But do you know how terrifying a herd of cows charging at you is, how fast and agile they are?”

It’s a rhetorical question; the 50-year-old Freisinger indeed knows. An agitated herd came at him and his family while they were day-tripping on one of the highest mountains in the eastern Alps. They escaped only because they let their dog off the leash, and the cows pursued Junior as he fled into the forest. When Freisinger went looking for the Saint Bernard mix, he heard a rapid scuffing just before a lone cow knocked him to the ground.

“I was fighting for my life,” he recounted recently, describing how he aimed his kicks for the udders. An avid soccer player, he believes that’s what saved him. Even so, the animal cracked one of his shoulder blades, an orbital cavity and several vertebrae and ribs, plus flattened his lungs and diaphragm with the weight of a grand piano.

Seven metal plates now hold Freisinger’s rib cage together. A 16-inch scar snakes around his torso. But Freisinger has made a full recovery — and still goes hiking.

“It’s such a beautiful thing to be in the Alps. But people have to be aware how dangerous this can be,” he said.

The scenery that annually draws 120 million tourists would not exist if not for cows grazing. It has been cultivated over seven centuries of farmers driving their herds to mountainside meadows in the summer. The animals’ hoofs firm the soil, their tongues gently groom the grasses and wildflowers. In the process, they continually sculpt verdant pastures — beloved backdrops for movies like “The Sound of Music.”

All that seemed at stake when a court in the western state of Tyrol found Pfurtscheller solely responsible for the German woman’s death and ordered him to pay more than $210,000 in damages to her widower and son, plus monthly restitution totaling $1,850. The 2019 decision shocked farmers, and not just in Neustift im Stubaital, a village of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants who live at the foot of a glacier promoted as the “Kingdom of Snow.”

As foreclosure on Pfurtscheller’s home and farm loomed, some farmers contemplated banning hikers from their land, a move that would cut off access to the Alps. Others threatened to stop taking their cows into the Alps altogether, a move that would allow nature to cut back in. Forests would soon begin to take over.

“This isn’t just about the farmers. It’s the wish of all Europeans to have the mountains open for hiking,” warned Josef Lanzinger, head of the Alpine farming association in Tyrol.

“This would mean the end of Alpine pastures,” said Georg Strasser, president of Bauernbund, the national farmers association that is one of Austria’s most powerful lobbies. Falling dairy and meat prices had already tightened the screws on farmers, he told reporters after the ruling, and the specter of lawsuits would prove too much to bear.

Governments quickly acted to keep cows on the pastures. State governors, federal ministers, even the Austrian chancellor spoke out in support of Pfurtscheller, a slender man of 62 who has been farming since he was 10. Last year, federal law was changed to block similar litigation. New insurance policies now cover every farmer whose animals go wild.

In May, the Austrian Supreme Court of Justice upheld a revised lower-court verdict that held the hiker equally culpable for the tragedy, cut her survivors’ compensation to $92,400 and halved their monthly restitution payments. The verdict was a real blow, said Markus Hirm, the lawyer for her family. “But given how much political support the farmer had, it still feels like a win.”

Farmers feel otherwise because of the pressures they’re facing. The steep Alpine terrain limits the amount of feed that can be grown and the number of cows that can be held. On average, a farmer in Tyrol owns 12 cows, but the more dramatic the landscape gets, the lower that figure goes. In some valleys, the average is six cows per farmer. By comparison, Germany’s average is 67 cows per farm.

Even with government subsidies — Switzerland hands out $440 for each cow taken to graze in the mountains — earning a living is tough.

“Reinhard really is doing this with all his heart and soul,” said Pfurtscheller’s wife, Angelika. “There’s no money in it.”

The number of farms in Tyrol deemed primary businesses is today a fraction of what it once was. Over the past decade, more than 25,000 cows have vanished from the Austrian Alps, according to the Agriculture Ministry, along with hundreds of pastures left for nature. The situation is little different in the Alps in Italy, France and Switzerland, where the loss of pastoral land is being closely monitored by authorities.

Many of the farmers still carrying on have pivoted to the least time-intensive type of farming: suckler herds. As opposed to dairy cows, kept separate from their calves and milked twice a day, suckler herds graze largely unattended while nurturing their calves through the summer.

The unintended consequence is that the mamas, fiercely protective of their young, can react strongly when tourists come too close. Hikers with dogs, as well as bike riders, add to cows’ stress. (The casualty on Pfurtscheller’s farm was accompanied by a terrier named Frodo.)

“To the cows, dogs are direct descendants of wolves,” he said. “If you thought your child is in danger, wouldn’t you defend it?”

Pfurtscheller has posted new signs on his land warning hikers to keep dogs away from mother cows at all times. He fences his pastures.

“People want the pastures, they want cows and farmers in Lederhosen,” he said. “But nobody sees how much effort it is.”

On a sunny afternoon last week, hundreds of hikers traversed his land, passing a small memorial he built for the woman who died there. The crowds are growing, but his herd is thinning. He’s down to six cows, having recently given up two that became too old to carry calves.

“I haven’t replaced them,” Pfurtscheller said.

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