In the Year of the Ox, stray cattle in parts of Sai Kung district are being fed hand-cut grass by concerned volunteers, who fear they have run out of natural grazing and would otherwise chomp on leftover human food or even trash.

But Hong Kong government experts said the special feeding encourages herds to congregate near humans, robbing them of their ability to find food sources in the wild.

cows eat grass
Photo: Supplied.

Cat Wong decided to help when she saw stray cows which seemed mere skin and bones browsing on plastic bags or even pebbles. So, in 2018, she started gathering groups of volunteers to cut grass from a village in Yuen Long, on the other side of the New Territories, and from elsewhere in Sai Kung.

The grass is bagged up and fed to cattle near Sai Kung’s Chong Hing Water Sports Centre and on Tap Mun (Grass Island). “The cows run towards us like horses on a plain, because they are hungry,” Wong said.

However, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said cattle gather around the water sports centre and on Tap Mun mainly because they are looking for a free feed from concerned citizens.

Wong’s group gets supplies from the village of Tai Kong Po in Yuen Long district, which “has so much grass that they needed to pay someone to remove it, so we help them out,” Wong said. “It’s actually extremely hard to find grass in Hong Kong.”

hay grass horse cow feed
Volunteers purchase horse hay to feed cattle in Sai Kung. Photo: Supplied.

Two times a week, the group travels to the village to cut roadside grass by hand and stuff it into large bags. With the help of volunteer taxi drivers they transport it to the water sports centre near the High Island Reservoir’s West Dam, to the East Dam, and to Tap Mun.

The hardest part is cutting the grass with a sickle. Wong said the group could not operate mechanical trimmers, because “90 per cent of us are ‘Kong girls'” — a term referring to ladies living a pampered lifestyle in the city.

grass harvest hay
Cat Wong and volunteers she gathered would cut grass off road side for feeding purposes. Photo: Supplied.

If grass is in short supply, Wong and the others will chip in to buy hay from a supplier who also caters to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Each 600kg load of hay costs HK$3,500, plus HK$500 for delivery. Even so, the group usually orders one load per week to supplement the grass with more moist feed.

But there is no coddling the cattle. “We just leave the grass on the ground and run away. We don’t have a relationship with them,” Wong said. The volunteers, however, will count the herd and report any injuries to the authorities.

taxi transporting grass and hay for cow ox and horse
Taxi drivers joining the volunteering effort offered free delivery rides. Photo: Supplied.

Stray cattle are reasonably plentiful. In 2018, official figures showed 1,140 brown cattle and water buffaloes across the New Territories, and as of 2020, 794 of them had been spayed or neutered to prevent breeding.

Cattle didn’t used to gather near Chong Hing Water Sports Centre until they were moved there by the authorities, Wong said. Grass is relatively sparse there due to the poor soil, she said.

Between 2014 and 2016 the government moved almost 200 cattle from other districts in the New Territories and from Sai Kung to the area near the West Dam of the High Island Reservoir, in an effort to prevent nuisance to villagers and traffic accidents.

ox cow cattle bull starving climate change desertification
Photo: Supplied.

Another herd used to graze on Tap Mun before the island was trampled by streams of hikers and campers, especially during the Covid pandemic. Now it is common for the cattle to scour campsites and tents in search of food and plastic bags have been found in their faeces. An autopsy on one ox found enough plastic to fill two baskets, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

The feeding programme is controversial. Wong said she had been fined by government officials called to the scene by other volunteer groups which also care for stray cattle but object to feeding.

cow cattle bull starving climate change desertification
Photo: Supplied.

“Feeding by the public will make them reliant on humans and lose their ability to find food sources in the wild. So when they are not fed, they will become habituated to seek food from tourists or from trash bins,” said an AFCD spokesperson in a statement.

“The Chong Hing Water Sports Centre is located in Sai Kung Country Park. Cattle can roam freely to other parts of the park, in over 7,000 hectares of land, where there are sufficient natural resources to sustain the herds’ lives.”

Tap Mun also has other grassy areas apart from the plains on its peak, according to the statement.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.