Lost Cow Season: Svaneti

For all I know, the names of the year’s seasons may have entirely different meanings in Svan than even in Georgian; there don’t have to be four of them, even. After all, different languages even have different amounts of colors, but it doesn’t mean that their speakers are blind to the unnamed colors!

For me, one of the meanings of “autumn” or “fall” in Svaneti must be “(season of) Lost Cows”. Alongside the glories of leaves changing color and mountain tops getting their first dusting of snow, cows go walkabout.

I’m told that this is because the local autumn fruits, pears, apples and plums, are ripening now and beginning to fall, both in people’s fenced off orchards and in the open fields and forests. Coupled with a lack of really good grass or hay to eat, this leads the cows to all sorts of different places to forage, and even to wait for the blessed fruit to drop for them. They might stay out all night waiting.

We try and encourage our bovines home with an evening meal of warm salted grain mash and whatever we’ve put into the kitchen scraps container for them—fruit and vegetable cores, ends or skins, but nothing from the onion, garlic or hot pepper families. Do they remember that this is waiting for them? I hope so.

In any case, where the mother cow goes, her daughter—now pregnant with her first calf, we think—follows. Not so the bullock, though; he, though younger at a year and a half, is definitely a boy, with a mind and manners all his own. I send the three of them out from the barn every morning, accompanying them to whatever forage starting point is necessary, but he may end up far from the ladies by evening. And is much less likely to return at all, that twilight meal notwithstanding.

The bell on the mother cow definitely helps most of the time. We found it on our honeymoon in Racha, and it’s been on her since summer this year, with its distinctive sweet musical tinkle alerting me if she’s anywhere within quite a large radius. As she, unfailingly so her daughter, so that’s two down for the price of one. If my eyes deceive me about who is who from a distance, my ears never do. Other bells may clank, ring lower; one even sounds a bit like a church bell to me. But each to its owner is unmistakable.

Last night, though, not one of the three returned. I gave up at about 10 pm, well past dark. It was a bit stressful, because mother should be milked twice a day. Nothing this morning, either; just rumors of sightings by neighbors. Off to school, and now I’m faced with another search starting earlier, mid-afternoon.

Thinking all the while: why do we all allow this, do this to ourselves? Is it just a tradition which we could do better to change or improve, but cling to because it is “the way it’s done”, and evermore shall be so? What would I change for my own little herd of three?

For autumn, I’d take either a low-tech or a high-tech approach. Either buy a field just for their exclusive use for this season, or... “chip” each of them with a tiny, non-removable (by them) GPS device which would let me track them anywhere. Either is possible, and I’m not sure which I prefer. Both require money, and I’m not sure that the GPS one would work well enough up here in a range of weathers. In any case, it’s just necessary from late summer until the snow hits the ground and stays, between the seasons of “good foraging” and “hay-in-the-barn”.

GPS, assuming it remained consistent, would be a one-time for always fix. The field would also be a one-time purchase, though. I could scythe its hay once and then let the cows have it after that. Its fence would need replacing only once a decade or less, so, perhaps it would be a longer-term solution than the GPS one.

These are the thoughts running through my mind as the bovines put me through my paces of an evening or afternoon. I may not be able to change anyone else’s tradition, but if it doesn’t work for me and there are obvious better ways available to me, why not? I may even persuade someone else progressive to follow suit. All I know is, if she goes long enough without a milking, she’ll dry up. And the longer I don’t see them, the greater the risk that someone near or far will rustle them from me, unbranded (though recognizably unique) as all cows here are, and eat them quickly to hide the evidence. So, while we don’t wish the long snowy season to descend upon us any earlier than necessary, something must be done!

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at


He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:


Tony Hanmer

22 October 2015 22:38