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On the Horns of a Dilemma
23 Nov, 2018

Referendums can be divisive and split communities, as we know to our cost. As we agonise over whether or not to hold another one on Brexit, spare a thought for the masters of direct democracy, the Swiss, who vote on 24/25 November 2018 over whether or not to subsidise farmers who do not dehorn their cows and goats.

According to the Reuters News Agency, critics say horns also help cows communicate and regulate their body temperature, and that the dehorming process is painful and unnatural. But supporters liken it to castrating cats or dogs and argue it is a safety issue. The Cattlesite.com informs that three quarters of Swiss cows are either dehorned or are genetically hornless. More than sufficient information, some would argue, to arm the general public with everything they need to pass judge on a complex issue.

In Switzerland, only 100,000 votes are needed to trigger a referendum - unlike the British system, where getting 700,000 people out on the street is not enough, and 100,000 signatures only earns a debate in a Parliamentary backwater.

"In Switzerland it's usual for issues to be brought to the people for a vote - every important question or less important question," said Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann.

The referendum on preserving the "dignity of livestock" was initiated by farmer Armin Capaul, 66, a self-described rebel. He says that "listening" to his cows - the Will of the Cattle? - inspired his nine-year campaign for cash to fund the extra grazing space horned animals need and which he hopes will reduce Dehorning.

Cattle can keep their horns

Claudia, wife of Armin Capaul, founder of the horned cow initiative
(Hornkuh-Initiative), cleans a cow ahead of the national vote
at the Valengiron farm in Perrefitte, Switzerland (courtesy Reuters)

Latest polls say that the result is too close to call - or as the UK government would interpret it, an overwhelming majority which must for ever be respected.

In Switzerland, cows have never been talked about as much as now," says Capaul, a distinctive figure with a long grey beard and hand-knitted red hat, whose alternative approach has made him a media star and a household name.

Whilst some in the UK certainly can see the case for some politicians to be dehorned, both Remainers and Leavers are united in being animal lovers, and there is little enthusiasm at least amongst the general public for mutilating cattle. Similarly, our friends in the EU support more welfare-orientated production systems.

The EU does this things in a different way: instead of ignoring experts and holding a referendum to determine the Will of the People, an extensive EU study has been carried out on the pros and cons, and alternatives to the dehorning of cattle, written by the Directorate General for Health and Consumers, Animal Health and Welfare Directorate.

The study concludes that the long-term solution must be based around genetically non-horned cattle, while shorter term recommendations focus on ensuring best practice (for the animal) during dehorning and disbudding procedures. Again, the report broadly supports the idea of subsidies for horned cattle.

Of course whatever the EU decides, the UK will be going along with, either with a vote at the table if we Remain, or without one if May’s proposal is passed. It is very much a case of “DeHorning Means DeHorning”.