Spending the fall holiday in western Switzerland, my girlfriend and I enjoyed the splendid autumn colours and were looking for mouflon – a wild sheep, which hid in plain sight.
Mouflon – c’est quoi ça?
A couple of weeks ago, I bought the Atlas of Swiss Mammals. While scrolling through the book, I was perplexed to come across mouflons (Ovis ammon musimon). I just didn’t expect to find them in Switzerland.
The origin of this species is believed to be Asia Minor. Around 7000 BC it was introduced by man to the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and over time it was eradicated from all other places, so that the species was saved from complete extinction only thanks to the populations there. From the 19th century onwards it has been actively introduced in numerous areas of Europe. At the beginning of the 1980s, the mouflon migrated from France to the Lower Valais. This is the only place where the wild sheep can be found in Switzerland.
Discussing holiday plans with my girlfriend Larissa, I proposed to visit this area rather than our traditional Engadin camping. She was very fond of the idea and knew the area at the eastern tip of Lake Geneva from hearsay. After some research, we booked an accommodation in Torgon – a tiny mountain municipal, whose banner even contains a mouflon.
So, what could possibly go wrong?
First Excursion in Torgon
Our visit was right at the beginning of the mouflon rut. Therefore, autumn was a perfect time to go there. At this time of the year males visit the herd of females for reproduction. Sometimes the male mouflons even fight with their long, curved horns, which they wear all their lives.
On the first day, we went on a hike advertised as mouflon trail. It was easy and offered many views of potential habitat, but the small brown sheep remained elusive. The Nikon Monarch M7 8×42 binoculars came in handy. At some point, Larissa was convinced that it smelled like sheep. We looked long and hard at the flanks of a steep wall and into the thick forest. This place would have been perfect habitat for the agile climbers, but none were to be seen. Paying a visit to the only restaurant along the way called “La Bourri”, we enjoyed a delicious desert and some rosé. While sipping some wine, I saw two wildlife photographers approaching in full camo gear. Seizing the opportunity, I got up quickly from my seat and had a chat with them in my broken French. Apparently, they hadn’t seen any mouflon either.
Distractions along the Way
After the first disappointment of not finding any mouflon, we opted to visit some easier goals. We drove to the vineyards in Lavaux that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer extent of the terraces is mind-boggling.
On another day, we had a detailed look at the fairy-tale castle called Chateau Chillon, which sits on an island in the Lake Geneva. As a historian, I lost track of time there and I can highly recommend it.
Mouflon ou t’es?
Meanwhile doing some further research, I found that I wasn’t the only one struggling to find wild mouflon in Switzerland. Asking local people, the response was often that they hadn’t seen them recently – perhaps because of the growing population of wolves. Or might it be that they became very shy because they can be hunted? Similarly to the story of rainbow trout, mouflon are non-native to Switzerland and therefore are not protected. The question arises, how long does an animal have to be present in Switzerland to enjoy the privilege of protection by a legal size?
The question arises, how long does an animal have to be present in Switzerland to enjoy the privilege of protection by a legal size?
Nonetheless, Larissa and I undertook another hike to a remote valley, where there is a protected zone for every animal. Perhaps they just preferred their solitude? Along the way, we were greeted by two dogs wearing collars. One of them even jumped at my girlfriend. Further up the hill there stood five hunters roughly 100 meters apart from each other. They were doing a drive hunt. I talked to two of them about mouflon. Whereas the older hunter claimed they were far up the hill due to the temperature, a younger fellow let us in on a secret… but more on that later.
The valley that is a wildlife rest area was a wonderful place with stunning mountain walls, dense fir trees, and open meadows. At the last clearing in the forest, where we planned on turning around, our gaze met with three deer. They were very attentive of their surrounding and spotted us early. Observing them for a while we returned again unsuccessful.
Live and Learn
Arriving at our accommodation, I stood on the balcony, overlooking the meadows. Suddenly, I saw some darker dots moving through the grass. I grabbed my binoculars, pointed them at the meadow on the opposite side of our flat about 400m away, and literally screamed: “Mouflon!”
Larissa had a look too and only spotted the white domesticated sheep. Understandably she questioned my sanity because she thought I mistook them for mouflon. Honestly, by now it wouldn’t amaze me. However, the domesticated animals were standing closer. Slightly further away, below the windy road next to the steep forest dropping down to the main valley, the mouflon herd, including males (!), were grazing!
At first, I thought of visiting them the following morning because it was already getting dark. Though, Larissa insisted on having a look right now. “What if they don’t show up tomorrow?” She was right and so we drove there. Getting out of the car, I had already prepared the lens, allowing the ISO go crazy. The herd didn’t allow us very close but fled into the forest as soon as they realised our intentions. Come rain or shine, I finally got an image of a wild mouflon in Switzerland.
Planning the shot
The next morning, I spotted the herd again. Now the females were grazing even closer, and three males were having a fight. For a short time, I filmed them from far away, before I headed out. I approached them from downwind. The males recognized me, but were too absorbed vying for feminine attention, so that they remained. Subsequently, I sought cover at the border to a patch of forest, anticipating the sun shining over the peaks any minute. The herd came closer on the ridge above me. Somehow, I managed to capture a few images and record for a bit before they realized my presence when I lowered the camera. That’s when they all disappeared again into the forest just shortly before the golden hour. They didn’t return before our departure.
Mouflon Adventure in Torgon
This has been an adventure with highs and lows. Not only because of the altitude, but especially because of the long search for mouflon hiding in plain sight. We were able to observe their preferred meadow from our flat, just below the second curve driven from Torgon, which was the secret shared by the young hunter. Had we known earlier, I might have had more encounters. However, considering their shy behaviour and the time I had, I’m glad for the pictures I was able to take. Still, I have many more compositions in mind that have yet to come to fruition.
Until next time, mouflon!