Feral brown cattle roaming across the hills of Lantau and the New Territories are a common sight.

Abandoned when their remote agricultural villages were depopulated in the 1950s and 60s, the original herds have multiplied into sizeable wild communities.

Along with domestic cattle, water buffalo can also be seen in some lowland locations, such as Kam Tin. Ploddingly picturesque and, for the most part, harmless, both species enable Hong Kong’s annually less bucolic countryside to retain some rural atmosphere.

But why were these valuable beasts not rounded up and sold for their meat when their erstwhile owners, now fully engaged in running the Chinese takeaways that lured them overseas in the first place, realised they would never return to farming?

Quasi-religious reasons for protecting cattle are a cultural legacy from Buddhism’s migration from India more than 1,500 years ago.

Buddhism developed from earlier Hindu beliefs – much as Christianity and Islam evolved from Judaism – and many Hindu- Buddhist traditions spread to China. Most of these introductions, such as avoidance of beef, eventually became so Sinicised that their Indian origins today are only apparent on close inspection.

Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, for example, were rendered phonetically into Chinese characters many centuries ago; they mimic without meaning the original Sanskrit or Pali sounds, and are unintelligible as philosophical concepts. The pointlessness of these garbled recitations largely accounts for the amused contempt with which many classically educated Chinese viewed Buddhist monks and nuns, and the folk superstitions they propagated.

Respect for cattle was another Buddhist introduction with Hindu origins; this animal’s presumed sacredness remains one of India’s defining cultural features. The term “sacred cow”, used to depict an object of unchallenged veneration, comes from India.

Now a religious fetish, protection for cattle was once deeply practical, which appealed to the pragmatic Chinese mindset.

In early agrarian societies with limited food security – which encompassed most of the world until, in historical terms, just the other day – powerful superstitions evolved to prevent either the destruction of long-term essential items, such as cattle and other draught animals, or the avoidable introduction of disease vectors.

Jewish food prohibitions evolved in this way. If a nomadic, periodically persecuted people wished to remain healthy in a desert environment, then making the main entry points for preventable diseases divinely prohibited helped ensure their survival. Pigs and other scavengers, including shellfish, carried parasites such as tapeworms, and could spread encephalitis, hepatitis and other diseases. Eat these foods and catastrophe surely followed, though the underlying scientific causes were then unknown.

When priests – powerful authority figures in primitive Middle Eastern societies – declared “The Lord God” would smite those who ate certain prohibited foods, this generated fear, which led to avoidance. Disastrous epidemics and debilitating chronic disease were dramatically reduced as a result. For most people, this provided evidence for the blessings that followed when “the Lord’s will” was obeyed, and the ghastly punishments that resulted from disobedience.

Superstitions linger in the modern world. Many traditionalminded Chinese – even urbanites who have been unconnected to agricultural life for generations – do not eat beef.

Most who abstain are practising Buddhists, not devout enough to become vegetarian, but who nevertheless avoid this meat for lingering cultural reasons.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong