Could there be fewer cowbells in Switzerland?

A recent study suggesting that cowbells worn by Swiss cows could hurt their hearing has raised calls to end the time-honored tradition of tinkling bovines.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found that the bells could damage the cows’ hearing and lead to eventual deafness, according to Germany newspaper Schweiz Am Sonntag.  The cowbells create noise levels of 100 to 113 decibels, which is roughly equivalent to the noise level of a chainsaw. The legal sound limit in Switzerland is 85 decibels.

In addition to hearing damage, the cows who wore cowbells chewed their food for less time than the cows who didn't wear cowbells. The researchers studied more than 100 cows who wore 12-pound cowbells across 25 farms in Switzerland.

The research did not determine, however, whether the weight of the bells had an effect on the cows' habits in addition to the cowbells' sounds.

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Swiss news site TheLocal.ch reports that animal welfare activists have long called for a cowbell ban.

“We didn’t need long university research to tell us that the bells are not beneficial to cows,” says Lolita Morena from a Swiss animal protection group. “Farmers will just have to spend a bit more time finding their cows in bad weather, like shepherds do. It’s difficult work... but they chose it.”

Some have suggested the bells be replaced with GPS tracking devices to making tracking cattle easier and quieter, but critics scoff at the idea.

Cowbells have long and rich tradition in Switzerland. For centuries herders have used cowbells to keep track of grazing cows in the country’s hilly landscape.  The cowbells have traditionally signified the wealth of a farmer: the bigger the size of a cows bell the richer the owner.  They are also used as decorations during special occasions and according to folklore are believed to have magic power – like keeping the evil spirits away from the pasture.

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There are several festivals that center around the cowbell. One is called Alpaufzug, where cows are adorned in floral wreaths and create a procession through town.  The best milk-producing cow wears the largest bell, with other cows wearing bells of varying smaller sizes, depending upon their past year’s milk production. Also in Eastern Switzerland, is the festival of Bell Dorado, held on March 1, where boys crowd the streets and ring bells. The thought is that the louder the noise, the faster the green pastures will grow and evil spirits will vanish.

Swiss Tourism spokeswoman Véronique Kanel told TheLocal.ch  that it would be hard to image Switzerland without cowbells.  “It would be the end of a myth, of an image of Switzerland.”

But she says that the organization would support any decision that would unanimously ban bells, adding that “animal welfare is paramount.”