VIDEO: Swedish cow calling growing in popularity

A type of Scandinavian cattle-calling dating back to the Middle Ages has seen a revival in Sweden and has even been featured in a Disney film.

VIDEO: Swedish cow calling growing in popularity
During the middle ages in Sweden , a vocal technique known as kulning developed among women who had to take animals from farms to graze them in forests. Screenshot: Tom Little/AFP

Jennie Tiderman-Osterberg lets loose a high-pitched call into the Swedish forest, her voice rising and falling in a haunting, eerie melody.

The echo reverberates through the woods and moments later, three cream and black cows emerge from the trees. The bells around their necks jingle as they make their way towards her to return to their shed.

This is kulning — a form of Scandinavian cattle-calling dating back to the Middle Ages.

Watch The Local’s video on Swedish cow calling here:

Once these calls rang out from summer farms across central Sweden as farmers brought their animals back from the woods after a day of grazing.

Many of the farms vanished as Sweden industrialised in the mid-19th century, but kulning has grown in popularity in recent decades.

Prestigious music schools now offer courses and the hypnotic and entrancing art was even featured in the 2019 Disney movie “Frozen II”.

Sweden recently decided to nominate the summer farms known as fabods, where kulning developed, to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list to better preserve their unique culture.

‘The real life’

Tiderman-Osterberg’s lifelong passion for music started with a childhood obsession with opera, before going through a punk drummer stage. She is currently doing a PhD in musicology.

Hearing kulning changed her life, she said, as she fell in love with both the art form and its cultural origins.

“The first time I used kulning, it felt almost as if my feet were growing roots,” she said.

“I decided that it was my life’s mission to spread knowledge” about kulning and other fabod traditions, said the tattooed musician dressed in a pinafore, cotton dress and head-covering harking back to the 19th century.

Traditionally fabod women would take cows and goats to graze in the woods to ensure they did not eat the crops grown on arable land.

When AFP caught up with Tiderman-Osterberg in July, she was visiting the Arvselen fabod in the central region of Dalarna,  practised calling the farm’s cows back from the forests.

Owner Tapp Lars Arnesson returned to his family farm after a career as an actor, attracted by a simple life in the countryside.

“For me there’s nothing better,” he said, standing outside one of the farm buildings, a trilby pulled down over his eyes. “This is the real life.”

He has maintained the group of little red traditional buildings without electricity and still lives off the land, growing vegetables and milking his three cows.

His fabod is one of only around 200 left in Sweden, down from tens of thousands in the mid-19th century. And only a handful keep kulning alive.

Tiderman-Osterberg is planning to tour Sweden this summer with fabod farmers to give lectures and kulning demonstrations to raise awareness.

Its rising popularity means the high-pitched, wordless call is now also practised as an art, with concerts given around the country.

‘It’s very releasing’

At Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, a small group of students are spread out into the corners of a dimly lit auditorium, responding to their tutor’s call with melodious ones of their own.

They learn to project their voices as farmers in the forest would have done to reach animals kilometres away.

“People want to learn kulning because there is something intriguing about using your voice in this powerful way,” said Susanne Rosenberg, a folk singer and professor who started the course.

Rosenberg’s students come from a variety of backgrounds. “They could be an opera singer… (or) someone who just wants to call the kids home for dinner,” she said.

Enthusiasts also offer courses outdoors, with or without cows.

On a farm near Gnesta south of Stockholm, tutor Karin Lindstrom troops across verdant hillsides followed by a dozen students.

Standing in a field as mosquitoes and gnats buzz around, her dozen students start with short sounds, building up until they are ready to attempt their own cattle calls.

Few will ever use their new skills to round up cattle, but Lindstrom said the centuries-old tradition had other benefits.

“The personality is very closely (linked) to the voice and many people have not been able to express themselves,” she said. “It’s very releasing.”

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OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.