The Kennedy Town seafront is a nice place for a virus-free outdoor picnic lunch. There are  benches and a harbour view full of floating and boating. It’s like the old Blake’s Pier. You can also contemplate a continuing controversy about the relationship between Man and Nature.

As soon as you unwrap your sandwich a small audience of pigeons will appear, watching attentively for any dropped crumbs and hoping that generous diners will be willing to share. The pigeons are a sleek and prosperous looking lot, which suggests that these hopes are often fulfilled.

instagram pier hong kong (4)
“Instagram Pier.” Photo: Tom Grundy.

This is officially not recommended. Some months ago I recorded with some puzzlement that signs had appeared in Central urging people not to feed birds, warning that this would lead to pigeon over-population, and possible obesity in lucky individual birds. The sign also said it “might” be a criminal offence. This is unlikely. Perhaps this is the sort of charge that you only have to worry about if your name is Jimmy Lai.

Anyway I imagine this is not a big problem in Central. Where I live, on the fringes of the Shing Mun Country Park, the issue of relations with the wild is more pressing. As well as the usual birds we have frogs, monkeys, rats, snakes, feral dogs, wild pigs and  – a rare nocturnal treat – at least one large porcupine.

This has attracted the regulatory instincts of the relevant government departments, so we are also treated to a steady flow of advice, usually on large plastic banners. We are urged not to feed the monkeys, as “nature can meet their needs,” and how to keep safe if you meet a wild pig: “Hide behind a tree.” Apparently wild pigs are fairly stupid.

Wild boars no feeding
File photo: via C.C.2.0.

Some surreptitious feeding does go on, though not by me. I understand the dilemma, though. The hungry animal before you wants food. Supplying it is clearly in the individual interest of that animal, though it may be problematic in the larger scheme of things. There is a story about a man who threw a stranded starfish back into the sea. His companion said this was a meaningless gesture, because there were hundreds of stranded starfish on the same beach. The rescuer pointed in the direction where the starfish was now, presumably, swimming away and said: “It was meaningful to him.”

I understand that wild animals are not helped if feeding them encourages them to hang about areas populated by people. On the other hand, natural food supplies are precarious and seasonal. Feeding the birds is a long tradition and is endorsed by Mary Poppins. The argument continues.

Indeed it is now reproducing itself on an epic scale in the New Territories, which for many years has been home to large numbers of semi-domesticated – or if you prefer, semi-feral – cows and buffalos, now surplus to agricultural requirements.

cows buffalo
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

A concerned citizen, seeing the cows looked emaciated, gathered some friends to organise food. The cows have been rounded up by the Ag and Fish people and are now found only in Sai Kung Country Park and Tap Mun (Grass Island). The volunteers crop grass in a distant village where it is a nuisance, and transport it to where the cows are evidently hungry. The grass gets a warm reception.

Occasionally the volunteer feeders have a whip-round and buy hay from the company which supplies the Jockey Club.

This is a controversial activity. Some cow fanciers disapprove. Feeders have been fined. An Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department spokesman said: “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.”

He also said that the cattle could roam over 7,000 hectares of Sai Kung Country Park, which contained “sufficient natural resources to sustain the herd’s lives.” And though the flat top of Grass Island has, he conceded, been trampled flat by hordes of visitors, there was still grass on other parts of the island.

Country park
Country parks in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a complicated scene and we must accept that everyone concerned is propelled by the highest motives, including concern for the health and happiness of the cows. However there seem to be a few points worth noting.

Firstly, for whatever reason, the cows are clearly not getting enough to eat. Observers have seen them eating things like pebbles and plastic bags. One buffalo which died had two basketfuls of plastic bags in its stomach.

Secondly there seems to be some official lack of information about the fact that grass is a seasonal crop. Round our way the grass stops growing about the end of October. Grassland then gradually turns brown, which is the way it stays until the summer rains start around the beginning of April. Last week’s unseasonal rain powdered our brown fields with green, but these are little shoots of no interest to a hungry cow.

This is so serious a matter for domestic cows that for centuries most cows were slaughtered in the autumn because they could not be fed over the winter. This practice continued until a gentleman called “Turnip” Townshend pointed out that his favourite vegetable would keep in a cool dry place and could be used to feed cows over the winter.  When I was a kid, kale – now a trendy salad item – was grown only as winter feed for cows and did not appear on human menus at all.

So the important question is not whether the cows have access to grass, but what they are supposed to eat when the grass dries up.

Lantau buffalo
Lantau buffalo. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This brings us to the third point which seems to have got lost somewhere, which is that these are not wild cows. They are feral cows, which is a completely different thing. Your New Territories cow may have been turfed out by its owner to forage for itself, but it is still the product of centuries of breeding designed to produce a fat, immobile, unenterprising animal with no inclination to do anything but eat, breed and stand around looking picturesque.

No doubt millennia ago there was a primitive ancestral cow which roamed the Serengeti Plains and would instinctively set off for pastures new if food in its locality ran short. That was long ago. And the Sai Kung Country Park is mountainous. That is why is it a country park. These are cows, not mountain goats. Did they ever have “their ability to find food sources in the wild”?

I conclude that it is perhaps not entirely fair to expect surplus cows simply to fend for themselves. Nor is it conducive to happiness in the cow population. These are bred to be domesticated animals and would probably be happiest in a symbiotic relationship with humans.

So some help is needed. I cannot resist noting that the instinctive reaction of a Hong Kong civil servant to a group in need, whether animals or people, is to explain why help is not needed and will indeed be bad for them.  Pensions discourage savings, unemployment pay encourages idleness, sickness pay fosters malingering and free health care encourages bad habits. We have no cake and cake is bad for you. Let them all eat plastic bags.

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.