Black and white, long-haired, curious, lively, self-confident. These are the Blackneck goats, also known as gletschergeissen (glacier goats). Nowadays they are popular breeding animals and a well loved sight in tourist resorts. The Geissenkehr in Zermatt attracts thousands of people every day –cameras busily clicking and guests running behind the animals in order to snap a picture for the holiday album - before the goat herd returns to their “Gädi” at the end of the village for their evening rest. For six weeks, from the start of July until the middle of August, young kids from the area, accompanied by an adult person, drive the goats through the centre of the village every morning at 9.00 a.m. and every evening at 5 p.m.
Goats saved from extinction
In earlier days, goats were the poor man’s cow, and were widely distributed in the Alps. Even as late as the 60’s, they were still led from the Gaden to the meadows in Zermatt every morning and were driven back to their stalls in the evening so that they could be milked. Today, however, Blackneck goats are hardly ever kept as milk goats, as they only produce around 500 kilograms of milk per year. There are other breeds of goat that provide more milk.
Thanks to the efforts of various breeders’ associations, however, the different breeds of goat are once again being promoted in Switzerland, and this is also the case with the Blackneck goats. They have the advantage that people immediately take them to their hearts due to their attractive appearance and lively characters. And that’s why a number of groups of goats come to Zermatt every summer to be appreciated by the tourists. The Geissenkehr has been organised by Zermatt Tourism since the 90’s. In a way, the goats are the street artists of Zermatt.
More popular then ever today
“The Blackneck goat is hailed by many goat breeders as the most beautiful of all Swiss goats”, writes the Upper Valais Goat Breeding Association on its homepage. The same goats have a number of other names: Sattel goat, Vispertal goat, Halsene and, in the Upper Valais dialect, also Ghalsochtu. During the economic boom in the last century, it was feared that the goats could disappear from the mountain slopes of Upper Valais, and there were only 400 to 500 Blackneck goats in the complete canton of Valais in the 50’s. At the end of the 80’s, the Cantonal Parliament of Valais approved a loan of 1.5 million Francs to save the Blackneck goat from extinction. As a result, the herd stock grew from 1,429 to 2,424 animals between 1993 and 2003.
Animals with character
Together with the goat groups from other breeders in the surrounding area, the goats form a herd for six summer weeks in Zermatt. One can observe how the goats continually carry out their small power struggles amongst each other. Goats are absolute gourmets – and are always on the move looking for the best titbits. Observers standing in rows during the Zermatt Geissenkehr can perhaps see how a goat briefly breaks away from the herd and unceremoniously snatches a flower or a few bush twigs sticking out of a garden fence before continuing on its way chewing with relish.