In a tranquil field nestled deep inside a Sai Kung country park, two dozen feral brown cows graze quietly on grassland.
This time last year, most of the cows roaming on the field beside the Chong Hing Water Sports Centre did not call the area home.
The 21 ruminants were moved there from Lantau Island in November as part of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department's cross-district relocation scheme. Under the scheme, 29 stray cattle were also moved from Sai Kung to the Shek Pik Reservoir area on Lantau.
The idea was that rehoming the cows would prevent them roaming into urban areas and causing a nuisance to residents or drivers. But cattle conservation groups say the scheme has been a "complete failure" since day one.
Recently relocated cattle on Lantau have been found lingering near the Ngong Ping Market and foraging through rubbish. Other reports have surfaced of sick or underweight cows unable to adapt to the new environment.
According to a 2012 survey, there were about 1,200 stray cattle scattered across rural areas.
From late 2011 to February this year, the department caught 473 under a capture-steriliserelocate programme.
Lantau Buffalo Association chairwoman Ho Loy said the government scheme would only compound the problem.
"Stray cows in a completely foreign environment will be prompted to roam and walk out onto roads," she said, adding that the mental stress of being moved abruptly to a new habitat was akin to "putting a person on a new planet".
The department conceded that one cow in the scheme had died in February, but said this was from "natural causes".
The cow had last been seen on February 4 in the enclave of Hoi Ha, said Carol Biddell, co-founder of Sai Kung Buffalo Watch. "It's very unfortunate," she said.
However, department veterinarians said none of the relocated cattle in Sai Kung or Lantau had suffered health problems caused by the move.
Patrick Lau Im-tung, a vet in the department's cattle management team, said a cow's health could be determined by whether it could walk and eat properly and whether it was alert. "If you look at them here [in Chong Hing], they all look very healthy."
GPS tracking devices showed some cows walked more than a dozen kilometres from Chong Hing into Pak Lap and elsewhere.
Lau said this was not due to stress or an inability to find food, but to a natural curiosity that led them to explore.
"What concerns us is that the cows are safe and they don't walk back out to Sai Kung town," said senior vet Esther To Man-wai. She said there were already fewer complaints over nuisance cows.
But Ho dismissed the scheme as a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage over the deaths of eight cows on Lantau's roads last year.
She said the department had not done enough to ensure the cows' long-term survival.
"It's a complete failure. The AFCD are moving them using a livestock management style, not a conservation style. They have not taken into account the long-term mental stress of these cows by relocating them.
"Moving them will not make them safer. It just means the people don't have to see them dying in front of them any more."
She said it would be more effective to improve road management and enforce traffic rules.
The department will review the scheme in mid-2014.