Wealth Blog

Feral cattle – are sneaky moves the answer?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 4:01pm

Readers were no doubt puzzled to learn that the government has been secretly trucking feral cattle to strange places in a bid to make them behave more like obedient poodles and less like roaming bovines.

The somewhat ironically named Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) fessed up last weekend that it had, since November 20, rounded up 29 cattle in Sai Kung and carted them off to Shek Pik Reservoir on Lantau. Meanwhile they moved 21 from Lantau to High Island in Sai Kung. En route they took them to their farm for castration and sterilisation, to stem the recent population explosion.

AFCD really had no choice but to own up. The eagle-eyed pro-cattle and buffalo organisations soon spotted missing and new bovine faces, due to their numbered ear tags.

There are thought to be about 1200 bovines on Lantau and in the New Territories. They were simply let go when the ancestors of the current villagers forsook rice and ginger lily cultivation to work in toy factories or open Chinese takeaways in England. No one needs them now. Even so, AFCD’s insistence on calling them “stray” cattle seems a little harsh, since they have been quietly minding their own business for decades. It’s only now that human development is encroaching on their habitat that there’s a problem.  

Startlingly thin

Cow no 3 caught the cattle groups’ attention, being severely underweight. They maintain she has failed to adapt to her new environment. They say cattle are being dumped in areas with insufficient food, water and shade. Though to be fair, when shown this photo, two cattle vets said cows do not have such severe weight loss over night. To them it looked like a chronic problem, possibly a systemic disease, such as Tick fever. Johnes disease or Severe GIT parasitism to name a few - though hard to say without tests. There’s an unconfirmed report that AFCD has been treating one cow for anaemia, which may explain no 3’s condition.

Driver killed eight

Hong Kong’s cattle made the headlines last summer when eight were killed on the South Lantau Road by a speeding driver in a bloody hit and run. Shunting the animals off to pastures now is apparently aimed at stopping this kind of thing and disrupting traffic by meandering down the road.

Feral cattle and water buffalo have been a flashpoint among Hong Kongers for years. Although they originally tilled the fields for their grandfathers, many New Territories villagers want them gone. As rural land prices soar, villagers often view the roaming herds as obstacles to rezoning wetlands for building. Probably just as many people, especially but not exclusively Westerners, regard the cattle and buffalo as part of Hong Kong’s history and an integral part of the rural landscape. Emotions run high on both sides. 

Arguments that cattle and buffalo help preserve precious wetlands and ecosystems and draw tourists and school groups to the New Territories fall on deaf ears in the face of development dollars.   

Loud objections

The recent moves drew howls of protest from the pro-cattle groups, such as the Lantau Buffalo Association and Friends of Mui Wo Cattle. They don’t share AFCD’s view that pastures new will keep them off the roads.  The cattle vets also questioned how long it would take before the transplanted cows, in unfamiliar territory, wandered till they found the road again. They do like sleeping on tarmac.    

Nothing new

Relocation by releasing stray cattle (from Ma On Shan, Sai Sha Rd.) into country parks has been going on since 2011, said AFCD. But results are inconclusive since numbers are small. The feral cattle have been breeding prolifically, and increased numbers in Sai Kung Country Park (Pak Tam Au and Chong Hing Water Sports Centre) in recent years seems to have pushed them onto roads and into the town, where cattle and cars don’t mix. Complaints by the District Council in Sai Kung have prompted the government cattle team to act.

Enter the consultant

So who hatched the relocation idea? Stupid question. Consultants,of course. The lady at AFCD said she did not think there was research to back it up, but AFCD have had extensive discussions with an ecologist from Ecosystems Ltd, whoever they are, who reckon cattle may be using familiar road networks to return to the town centres. I hope taxpayers’ money was not wasted on this startling revelation. Anyway, hence the pilot scheme to relocate cattle from here to there, “consistent with AFCD’s general management principle.”

Not random

The animals have been selected carefully for this experiment, we are told,  based on behaviour and herd compatibility while they were in the AFCD yards being castrated and sterilised en route to their new homes.

AFCD asks for everyone’s patience, insisting this is “entirely reversible” and that the cattle have suffered no adverse effects.

First of all, hats off to AFCD for not simply giving into the district council and culling the cattle, which happened in the past (see photos from Mui Wo cull a few years ago), resulting in horrendous scenes.

Sadly, it seems neither Ecosystems nor AFCD spent much time with the cows before rounding them up and pontificating about their behaviour. For several years the Mui Wo herd of about 12 head bedded down under a tree beside my garden in Ma Poi Tsuen most nights. Creatures of habit, they were docile and a lot like elephants, living in a close family group, led by a dominant male. When AFCD botched the castration of the big Mui Wo bull a few years back, resulting in septicaemia and his untimely death, his herd was bereft. They wandered about aimlessly. Without his confident leadership, they spent far less time in the hills and bogs, instead plodding into Mui Wo. Every year about November when grass became scarce, the bull would lead them off up the hills somewhere behind Discovery Bay. They would not return until spring. Without him, this migration ceased and since then they increasingly try to sleep in the Mui Wo playground and on the road and invade gardens. They leave copious cowpats and yes, it’s easy to see how they annoy people.

Obvious solution

In the past, AFCD has done awful things, but in recent years they have been trying much harder at the “conservation” part. Instead of breaking up decades-old family groups, how about employing cattle herders to keep the roads bovine-free? It’s been considered before, but never properly done. And I’m sure a bloke – or lady - with a stick and stout boots is cheaper than a consultant.