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Battle Royale

Every year, the Swiss canton of Valais plays host to a series of unusual sporting events when the combats de reines (or 'queen fights') draw tens of thousands of spectators who watch massive Herens breed cows push and shove each other across a small ring, exploiting the cow's instinct to assert its dominance within the herd. With origins in the 1920s, the various canton-wide contests culminate in an annual grand final in the town of Aproz where the six best cows from seven districts compete for the title of La Reine des Reines ('queen of queens'). Close to the parallel world of the exclusive ski resorts of Zermatt and Verbier, ordinary country folk and a smattering of urban enthusiasts gather to watch the 600 kg creatures link their blunted horns until one of the two retreats from the fight. With each heat lasting around 40 minutes, spectators find time aplenty to eat and drink to their hearts' content. The competition, though less than 100 years old in its current format, goes back much further in alpine peasant tradition. Herens breeds, with their squat stature and muscular bodies, compete naturally for pasture in this rugged Alpine environment and for local farmers, the combat de reines is a potent expression of local identity in a canton where the beasts still graze across high pastures as they have done for centuries. For the owner of the winning cow, a victory at Aproz can also have direct financial gain, since calves of the queen of queens fetch higher prices than other Herens cows. Agriculture in Switzerland remains highly protected and the Swiss pay more for their milk than most. Yet the dairy industry is still dominated by small scale farmers which leads to a certain Swiss obsession with cows. In recent years, cows fights have been broadcast live on both French and German-language Swiss television and draw ever larger crowds.

Mark Henley went to one Grand Final in Aproz and discovered a fascinating world of rural quirkiness.
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