Country Parks – the Best Idea Hong Kong Ever Had

– Safeguarding Wild and Wonderful Hong Kong

For anyone flying in to Hong Kong for the first time, it may come as a surprise to look down and see islands dotting the sea, along with a green hilly landscape. Even the airport is beside an island dominated by peaks rising to over 900 metres.

            These scenes reflect the fact that Hong Kong is in a natural setting rivalled by few cities worldwide. Plus, much of the landscape is protected in 24 country parks, which in all cover 435 square kilometres – around 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area.

Lion Rock, in country park of same name, above Kowloon

            There are country parks right on the fringes of the city, such as on Hong Kong Island, and encompassing the line of hills north of Kowloon. Others are further flung. Within them, there are forests, grasslands and expanses of hillside with flowering shrubs, which are home to wildlife such as leopard cats, civet cats, wild boar, pythons, gorgeous swallowtail and birdwing butterflies, and brilliantly coloured fork-tailed sunbirds.

            The diversity of plants and animals makes the country parks important for conservation, especially as some species are rare in China or even worldwide. But they are also a wonderful resource for people. Each year, Hong Kongers and tourists make millions of visits to the country parks, for outings ranging from gentle strolls to long, challenging hikes, as well as enjoying pursuits ranging from photography to paragliding.

            The country parks system dates from the late 1970s. While the 1960s had seen growing recognition of the urgent need for conservation of wild life and developing the countryside as an outdoor recreational resource, it helped that a governor arriving in 1971, Lord MacLehose (then Sir Murray) keenly enjoyed the outdoors. He helped guide a programme that led to the Country Parks Ordinance being enacted in 1976, and within three years of this, 21 country parks had been designated.

            While Lord Maclehose was later credited by writer Stella Thrower as being among the “few clear-sighted men” who promoted the country parks against a background of apathy and vested interest, the country parks system involved some compromises, notably by excluding villages and farmland.

            This resulted in the creation of “enclaves” – patches of land surrounded or almost surrounded by country park, yet excluded from the country park system. At the time, this may not have seemed too important as, with farming becoming a tougher way to earn a living partly thanks to cheaper rice imports, many people left rural areas for life in the city or overseas. Indeed, the abandoned farmlands often became like accidental nature reserves, and home to frogs, fish, dragonflies and other creatures that were rarely or never found on the hillsides dominating the country parks.

            Yet it wasn’t long before these enclaves attracted developers, with housing built in places within easy reach of the city, and plans for projects such as golf courses and luxury residences. This in turn led to with legal tussles as green groups and allies tried to protect the enclaves; and there was a major public outcry in 2010, when news reports told of a landowner  destroying vegetation covering the area of several football fields at Sai Wan, a beautiful coastal site along a popular hiking trail on the Sai Kung Peninsula, eastern Hong Kong.  

            Spurred by this incident, in 2013 the government incorporated Sai Wan and two other enclaves into country parks. There were protests from villagers and ex-villagers, which evidently dented any enthusiasm for similarly treating the remaining 74 enclaves. Plus, the government nowadays lacks men – or women – in senior positions who are clear-sighted regarding conservation, but instead is itself touting suggestions for building housing within country parks. 

            Perhaps this would threaten the long term future of Hong Kong’s country parks, which – to borrow a quote on the US national parks – “are the best idea we ever had”. But for now, the country parks remain intact and magnificent, ready for you to pull on a pair of hiking shoes or sandals, and head out from the city to enjoy Hong Kong’s great outdoors.

For anyone flying in to Hong Kong for the first time, it may come as a surprise to look down and see islands dotting the sea, along with a green hilly landscape. Even the airport is beside an island dominated by peaks rising to over 900 metres.

            These scenes reflect the fact that Hong Kong is in a natural setting rivalled by few cities worldwide. Plus, much of the landscape is protected in 24 country parks, which in all cover 435 square kilometres – around 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area.

            There are country parks right on the fringes of the city, such as on Hong Kong Island, and encompassing the line of hills north of Kowloon. Others are further flung. Within them, there are forests, grasslands and expanses of hillside with flowering shrubs, which are home to wildlife such as leopard cats, civet cats, wild boar, pythons, gorgeous swallowtail and birdwing butterflies, and brilliantly coloured fork-tailed sunbirds.

            The diversity of plants and animals makes the country parks important for conservation, especially as some species are rare in China or even worldwide. But they are also a wonderful resource for people. Each year, Hong Kongers and tourists make millions of visits to the country parks, for outings ranging from gentle strolls to long, challenging hikes, as well as enjoying pursuits ranging from photography to paragliding.

            The country parks system dates from the late 1970s. While the 1960s had seen growing recognition of the urgent need for conservation of wild life and developing the countryside as an outdoor recreational resource, it helped that a governor arriving in 1971, Lord MacLehose (then Sir Murray) keenly enjoyed the outdoors. He helped guide a programme that led to the Country Parks Ordinance being enacted in 1976, and within three years of this, 21 country parks had been designated.

            While Lord Maclehose was later credited by writer Stella Thrower as being among the “few clear-sighted men” who promoted the country parks against a background of apathy and vested interest, the country parks system involved some compromises, notably by excluding villages and farmland.

            This resulted in the creation of “enclaves” – patches of land surrounded or almost surrounded by country park, yet excluded from the country park system. At the time, this may not have seemed too important as, with farming becoming a tougher way to earn a living partly thanks to cheaper rice imports, many people left rural areas for life in the city or overseas. Indeed, the abandoned farmlands often became like accidental nature reserves, and home to frogs, fish, dragonflies and other creatures that were rarely or never found on the hillsides dominating the country parks.

            Yet it wasn’t long before these enclaves attracted developers, with housing built in places within easy reach of the city, and plans for projects such as golf courses and luxury residences. This in turn led to with legal tussles as green groups and allies tried to protect the enclaves; and there was a major public outcry in 2010, when news reports told of a landowner  destroying vegetation covering the area of several football fields at Sai Wan, a beautiful coastal site along a popular hiking trail on the Sai Kung Peninsula, eastern Hong Kong.  

            Spurred by this incident, in 2013 the government incorporated Sai Wan and two other enclaves into country parks. There were protests from villagers and ex-villagers, which evidently dented any enthusiasm for similarly treating the remaining 74 enclaves. Plus, the government nowadays lacks men – or women – in senior positions who are clear-sighted regarding conservation, but instead is itself touting suggestions for building housing within country parks. 

            Perhaps this would threaten the long term future of Hong Kong’s country parks, which – to borrow a quote on the US national parks – “are the best idea we ever had”. But for now, the country parks remain intact and magnificent, ready for you to pull on a pair of hiking shoes or sandals, and head out from the city to enjoy Hong Kong’s great outdoors.

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