CHESEAUX-NOREAZ, Switzerland — As a hollow cowbell echoes through a rolling, misty Swiss countryside, cattle herder Armin Capaul smiles and cracks wise about the feat he's pulled off: Using the country's system of direct democracy to force a vote on an issue dear to his life and livelihood — whether cows keep their horns.
The small-time cattle raiser in the Bernese regional village of Perrefitte is the unassuming if media-friendly mastermind behind a proposal, years in the making after a painstaking petition drive, that Swiss farmers should receive state compensation for letting cows and goats keep their horns.
Proponents of the measure being voted on in a national referendum ending Sunday say the animals should be left the way nature intended, for their well-being and happiness. Opponents, like a key federation of cattle raisers, say the measure would cost too much and drain funds from other activities.
Polls suggest a neck-and-neck race after parliament expressed its opposition and support has eroded in recent weeks.
The issue strikes an emblem of Swiss identity. In an Alpine country proud of its cheeses, milk and chocolate, cows are elevated in the public psyche as a symbol of Swiss-ness. Images of cows are a staple of Swiss souvenirs, and cows regularly feature in cheeky TV ads: one recently showed a doctored image of one of the four-legged beasts kicking a ball with a star of the national soccer team.
The Swiss executive branch and parliament have — braving some potential backlash — come out against the proposal, insisting that it would cost too much. The government estimates that it could cost 10 million to 30 million Swiss francs (about $10 million to $30 million) per year to the state budget.
The issue has become a bit of a media spectacle internationally, in part because Capaul fits the stereotypical image of what a small-time Swiss cattle raiser might be, not unlike the grandfather in the Swiss children's classic Heidi: he wears an unkempt gray beard and matching hair, and often sports a plaid shirt, tasseled wool cap, or sweater that loosely hangs off the shoulder as he prods, pulls, pets and pampers his herd.
The impact of the issue is more spectacle than substance. Three-fourths of cows raised in Switzerland don't have horns, and many are born naturally without them.
Neither the amount of compensation for each nor the source of funding is mentioned in the petition, which would leave it up to lawmakers to iron out. Opponents fear such funding would eat into existing subsidies for cattle- and goat-herders and other outlays for the agricultural sector.
The opponents — including large-scale raisers — also envision high costs of adapting their facilities to allow for their cows to keep their horns so as to benefit from the state handouts. They argue, for example, that they would be required to expand their stables to widen the space between stalls so that animals don't injure one another with their horns. The opponents also say it's far from clear how painful de-horning really is.
For Capaul, it's a matter of principle. He claims that, unbeknownst to many unfamiliar with farms, horns are useful for communication and exchange of heat among cows. The fate of cows and his livelihood is at stake, he says.
"It's about respecting the dignity of the animal that feeds us, right?" Capaul said. "One should support those who leave the horn on, so that they (cows with horns) don't die out completely."
He acknowledged being a bit overtaken by the attention, after he and allies mustered the required 100,000 petition signatures to get such issues on the ballot in Switzerland, whose form of direct democracy gives voters a say on issues of national importance and interest. He's also surprised that there's so much opposition.
"I figured there'd be 80 percent 'yes' votes, but it seems I'm a little bit on the wrong planet," he says with a laugh.
Gilbert Christen, who raises about 50 dairy and beef cattle in the French-speaking town of Cheseaux-Noreaz, scoffs at the proposal as "asinine."
"These are things that should be resolved in the agriculture business but not in a public vote," he said.
His opposition comes even though he stands to benefit financially: He doesn't cut the horns of his own Simmental cows. Christen says he's been trained to cut horns and taught others about how to do so, but he opts to leave them on his own herd.
"I'm not going to be against receiving money because I have horns on my cows, but it's true that I think this money in any case will be taken out of agriculture somewhere — it will reduce funding elsewhere," he said, stroking the curly beige locks of a young cow.
But doesn't the procedure hurt?
"It doesn't hurt more than when one goes to the dentist and gets a jab for having a filling put in, I imagine," he said. "Then again, we're not in the shoes of a calf or an animal to know exactly if it's painful or not."