The shepherdess with the conductor's baton.

Nicole Heinrich

Nicole Heinrich
Wonderful, the peace and quiet up here. This silence, accompanied by the soothing splashing of the fountain in front of the alpine hut, the buzzing of a bumblebee feasting on the nectar of the just blooming alpine roses and the soft grinding noise caused by some cows ruminating nearby.

Text and photo: Marietta Kobald,

Woof, woof, woof! That's it for the peace and quiet. A border collie runs excitedly back and forth in front of the alpine hut, its snout pointing upward, and yelps angrily at a jet plane disappearing into the vast blue sky. "Kaja, quiet," sounds from the door of the hut. A woman, small, petite, with forget-me-not blue eyes, still a little wrinkled from her afternoon nap, stands there and greets us warmly. Nicole Heinrich, dairymaid, for whom the long journey to this beautiful alp has been made. We wanted to look over the shoulder of this dairymaid, known in the valley and beyond for her good cheese. But nothing comes of it. Nicole has descended the career ladder of an alpine dairywoman. She is the cowherd, the shepherdess here on Casanna. It is her voluntary decision to be responsible for 96 cows, 33 calves, 27 galt cows and cattle, 15 pigs, 4 chickens, 1 cat and the most important, Kaja, the border collie. This is a good-natured she and helps her to drive the cows, quietly, but agilely. Unless there is such a stupid flyer, then it's over with the calm.

The cow round dance

3 p.m. "We have to go," Nicole says to Tobias, who has just stepped out of the cabin door and also looks sleepy. The two of them swing onto the four-wheeler standing in the old barn - Kaja lies flat in a plastic box attached to the back of it - and drive down the gravel road some 250 meters in altitude to drive the herd up, because the cow round starts all over again. It's time for the second milking. They got up at 3:30 a.m. for the first one, hence the midday nap. And they are, in addition to Nicole Tobias von Almen from Luzein, who is helping her with the fencing and driving for a month, Martin Jenzer from the canton of Bern, the "new" dairyman and Roman Kaiser from Gams, who is here for the third time as Zusenn.

Nicole's conductor baton

The first cows from below arrive. Slowly and unhurriedly the herd trots up the steep slope, some quench their thirst at the merry babbling brook and behind them Nicole climbs up. Not a loud word is to be heard. Kaja jumps on Nicole's quiet call after individual renegades and drives them without barking to the herd. Nicole's long stick is not used to land on the cows' bony flanks and urge them to walk faster. No, she leans on it when she has to wait for one of her charges again or uses it as a climbing aid.

Cows are animals that are eager to learn. After only four days on the mountain, the team has got most of them to the point where they know who is allowed to enter the barn, which is divided into two rows of stalls, at the two gates and where they have to line up. If, for once, it doesn't work, if one of them doesn't react as requested to Nicole's soft words, there is a little hazel stick in her boot - Nicole tells him "My conductor's baton" - with which she lightly taps the disobedient one. And already the tip is followed. After just half an hour, the team has tied the nearly 100 cows in their place in the barn and Nicole takes time for a glass of elderberry syrup and a chat.

The headstrong

No, she doesn't want to know anything about a social decline on the alpine dairyman's career ladder. "With the hard work as a dairymaid with around 100 cows and eight tons of cheese per alpine season, there is little time for the animals and nature." Yet that's exactly what she likes, nature, life outside and the versatility as a shepherdess. She loves the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, likes to take pictures, enjoys the silence and doesn't care if the sun is shining or if there is thick fog over the pastures for days on end or if a cold snap forces her to drive the cows to lower altitudes. Nicole knows this from her childhood. She was born with it, so to speak. Growing up as a latecomer on a farm in Filisur, together with two siblings, she got to know the life of an alpine dairyman at the age of ten, setting out early in the morning with a companion and a rucksack to herd the cows and then driving them back to the Prosut Alp in the afternoon. She would love to work as a dairymaid on a small alp, but Casanna has grown on her. "The location here is splendid, we've made many a little bench in these years and," she taps the massive wooden table in front of the alpine hut and laughs heartily, "we also made this one ourselves."

Cook, piste bully driver and farmer

Nicole learned to be a cook, but after half a year in this profession she was fed up and since then she goes to the alp. In winter, the headstrong girl has driven a snow groomer in the small and pretty ski resort of Bergün or helped to tie the guests to the ski lift. And she completed her training as a farmer at the Plantahof in Landquart. She takes over her parents' farm in Filisur, a farm with 20 hectares of land where everything from meat and cheese to yogurt and ice cream is made and marketed herself.

Restlessly, Nicole slides back and forth on the wooden bench in front of the hut. "I should! Otherwise I'll get a guilty conscience about leaving my colleagues alone at the milking." She quickly stands up, grabs the milking stool lying next to her, belts it around her backside and disappears into the barn.

Alp Casanna in numbers

500 hectares with pastures from 1750 to 2300 meters above sea level. Different vegetation levels. Located on Klosters municipal territory, but belongs to the municipality of Luzein. In the short alpine season from about the end of June to mid-September, eight tons of cheese are produced and by-products such as butter and Ziger.

How do I get there?

Developed with a road from Serneus that requires a permit. Or even better: combine with a nice hike. Interactive map.