By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Royalton — Trouble has been brewing on Happy Hollow Road, and a quartet of innocent cows is stuck in the middle.
Making use of a state law from a bygone era, an exasperated resident fenced in a neighboring farmer’s escaped bovines over the summer. The farmer wants the animals released, and after months of dispute, today could be the day this mad cow escapade comes to an end.
“I was hoping it would get resolved a lot sooner,” Royalton Police Chief Bob Hull said Wednesday. “It’s sort of something that I don’t think has happened probably in the state for a long, long time.”
For years, Jim McCleery’s beef cows have wandered off his Apple Tree Trail Farm, a 93-acre spread on a rugged Happy Hollow hilltop. This is not in dispute. The escapees have left hoof prints in the yard, trampled fences and grazed in gardens.
At times, cows belonging to McCleery have been free for days and even weeks at a time, hiding in the woods of the surrounding hillsides.
Two years ago, a 3,000-pound bull escaped a horse trailer and terrified the neighborhood, earning McCleery a $50 ticket.
In other instances, guests in nearby cabins have been startled by the beasts wandering outside in the predawn hours.
One of McCleery’s neighbors maintains a list of grievances that dates back six years; the list started about three or four years after the problem did.
Over and over again, it reads, “They got out again.”
McCleery, 64, readily acknowledges his cows have caused some grief. He said he’s tried to make things right: he chased after them on a four-wheeler and tried to keep them behind fences. But prostate cancer and a hernia suffered this summer slowed him down, he said. And McCleery said he was further hampered because many of the neighbors had ‘no trespassing’ orders, which limited his ability to pursue his quarry.
Over the summer, McCleery decided to sell off his 15-head herd, and by August, he had almost completed that task. However, three yearlings made one last escape on the way into the truck. McCleery brought back an older female, thinking that might lure in the calves, but she escaped too, and together the four Black Angus beefers cruised through the neighborhood for one last hurrah, pursued by the farmer and a trio of helpers.
At that point, according to McCleery, the story takes a foreboding turn.
Both Hull, the police chief, and McCleery said a Happy Hollow neighbor fired half a dozen gunshots. Hull said he believes the man was trying to scare the animals from his yard, but McCleery said he and his friends hit the ground and called off the chase. The cows remained on the loose for days.
“I admit that I didn’t have control of them — when I’m not allowed on their property it’s hard to get control. And when they’re firing guns, I’m like, no, it’s not worth it,” McCleery said, “so we bagged it that day.”
That’s when Keith Hirtle, who lives across the valley on Deerhaven Lane, decided he’d had enough. The cow dispute is a civil matter, and there was nothing police could do, according to Hull and Selectboard member Peggy Ainsworth.
But Hull did give Hirtle some advice: Impound the cows.
Hull said the law, which allows a person to impound animals running rampant on his property, dates back to the 1940s. Once the animals are secured, the impounder must serve notice to their owners — Hull said he’s served multiple legal notices to McCleery and Hirtle in recent weeks — and can charge a fee for their release. In the case of cows, the fee ranges from $3 to $10 a day.
So Hirtle stocked up on fencing supplies at West Lebanon Feed and Supply, built a corral and lured the cows with grain. He began tallying a $3 per day per cow impounding fee, plus expenses for the fencing, feed and legal fees.
That was Sept. 24, several days after the runaway foursome got loose. The cows have been there since.
“Everybody was shushing them from one yard to the other but nobody was doing anything, including the town,” Hirtle said in a brief phone interview Wednesday.
Hirtle declined further comment, citing pending legal proceedings. He referred further questions to his lawyer, Vanessa Brown, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawrence Parmenter, the neighbor who has kept the ledger of cow complaints, said the bovines are a well-known neighborhood nuisance. He had records of McCleery’s cows traveling to neighbor’s houses a mile away.
“It’s a pain in the (butt),” he said.
Neighbor Gary Caron keeps his own cattle and said he’s grown accustomed to McCleery’s cows breaking into his pastures. One time, he said, that notorious 3,000-pound bull knocked Caron’s four-wheeler off the road, while he was driving it.
“I got a little uptight about that,” he said.
Caron said he was glad Hirtle took the steps to impound the animals because “it needed to happen … definitely.
“Generally there was a time, every spring and every fall, they would start showing up because they wouldn’t have any feed,” Caron said. “I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent fixing fence that they’ve broke because they would come up and break the fence and get in with my cows, because my cows have feed.”
Bob Parsons, an extension agricultural economist with the UVM Extension, said he “very, very, very seldom” hears about impounding cases involving individuals. The adage that comes to mind, he said, is “good fences make good neighbors.
“If you’re going to be keeping livestock, you have an obligation to keep those livestock in,” he said, noting that fences should be routinely patrolled to identify problems.
The men’s homes are perched opposite each other, with Happy Hollow Road running between them in the valley below. On Thursday, McCleery was out on his tractor, splitting wood on the hill above his home, while Hirtle was out blowing leaves. The four black cows grazed in their pen on Hirtle’s property.
McCleery paused from wood-splitting and peered across the valley.
“I can see them, but I can’t touch them,” he said with a laugh.
In an earlier interview, McCleery expressed displeasure that the town had pointed Hirtle toward the impounding law, which he said needs updating to clarify what qualifies as “expenses.” He said he already paid $1,000 to Hirtle through a farm insurance company, and he felt like that should be enough. He said Hirtle later sought an additional $2,000 to cover costs incurred in the past two months.
Plus, McCleery said, he wished his neighbors had responded differently since he was in he process of selling off the herd.
“I was trying to do the right thing here. Instead of my neighbors helping me, they were trying to hinder me,” he said.
McCleery and Hirtle have since negotiated the fees down to $1,100, McCleery said. He still thinks that’s too much, but he said on Thursday that he’s planning to sign to that agreement to get it all over with.
If all goes well, a truck will arrive at Hirtle’s place today, pick up the animals and take them to another farm, just not McCleery’s.
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