Goulds farmer decries ATV, snowmobile 'trespassers'

     Goulds farmer Robert Searle says he has had more than his fill of frustration caused by ATV and four wheel riders who are breaking through fences and tearing up hayfields and crops.
Searle’s 68 acre farm is located on the main road in the Goulds, right at the intersection with Ruby Line. He grows hay as well as cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips and potatoes, and is also rearing sheep. He hopes to increase the size of the flock, to better serve the growing demand for lamb in St. John's restaurants, and to start keeping beef cattle. But he is worried about the extra aggravation that will come from trying to protect his animals and the fences penning them in from ATVers and even snowmobilers who as a matter of course now carry pliers and wire cutters to clear the way for their machines.
     "Farming is dying off around here," Searle said. "You've got to put 24 hours a day into it, 365 days a year. A farmer will take a mere paycheque at the end of the week. The older generation didn't mind it, that's all they knew. But the younger generation, they can hop on a plane, be in Fort McMurray in 10 hours and they can take home $3,000 at the end of the week."
But Searle is not dissuaded. His grandfather bought the land in 1925. After he died in 1969, Searle's father rented the ground to local farmers. A few years ago, Searle started farming it.
     "I grew up farming, yes," he said. "I never did it full time, but I worked for dairy farmers in the area and I always picked vegetables and stuff. But now I'm after buying all my own machinery and clearing extra ground and I want to get back into it again.”
     Searle works days at construction and the rest of the time at farming, until the time when he can tend to his land full time.
     Most of the farm is composed of large meadows tended for hay. This year, he managed to grow and harvest 84 big bales of hay, which he sold to other farmers. The “bales” are actually more like giant, marshmallow looking balls of hay wrapped in plastic that each hold the equivalent of 14 of the old square bales.
     “My intentions are to get into sheep. I'm working on a permit to build a barn here... If I can get a flock of 50 or 60 sheep, I'll be self-sufficient in hay,” Searle said. “But as of now where I've only got 12 of them I've kind of got to get rid of the hay for the time being. It's going to take two to three years to get set up with a nice flock and some beef animals."
     The threat posed by ATVers has him worried. The few sheep he has now are terrified by the bikes when they come roaring by. Searle said the roar of a racing engine can cause a pregnant ewe to abort.
     "The problem here with the bikes is absolutely unbelievable," Searle said. "The bikes were really bad back during the '80s and they died out during the '90s.But since these new subdivisions have been built around the area, it's after exploding again. Last year and this year is the worst we've ever seen it."
     The local residents who own ATVs and snowmobiles, where they grew up around farmers, respect the necessity of staying off the fields, Searle said. "They'll use the trails. But this new crowd that's coming in at Balnafad, Wildrose, Southlands, new places that are being brought in here around the Goulds, there are a lot of people coming in, and I don't know if they know the difference and don't care, but we're really finding the past few years that we are crucified here with bikes."
     Hardly a weekend goes by that Searle doesn’t have to drop what he’s doing on the farm and chase after people tearing up through the fields on bikes.
     "It seems like every time I stop someone on a bike, they think they're a lawyer for some reason,” said Searle. “They know the law better than half the lawyers around. They'll say, 'Well you never had gates up, you never had chains up, you never had signs up.' And I'll say, 'Yes, because you just tore them down.' Then the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, 'Well sure the government is paying for it anyway.' Everyone has this thing in their head that when they see a meadow the government is paying for it... There's never been a government dollar spent on this property. This is ours. But whether the government is help paying for a meadow or not, that's privately owned ground."
     Searle said farmers throughout the Goulds are dealing with the same problem. There aren’t as many fences kept on farms these days, so bikers think they have free reign.
     “Years ago, a lot of farmers would have their cattle out grazing the fields between milkings, so they had to put up fences and maintain them,” Searle said. “But the bigger dairy farmers now keep their cattle in 365 days a year, because it's more efficient to bring the forage to the cattle and leave them in the barn. While they are in the barn you can walk through the herd and check them out and see problems. So the farmers more or less let their fences founder over the years.  One time in the spring that was the first chore every farmer had, maintaining his fences, because the cattle would be going out in the spring."
     But even in places where fences are maintained, such as on sheep farms, the wood and wire is not much of an impediment to the riders.
     Searle said he has had fence posts up with signs on them saying "No Trespassing' and 'Keep Out,' but ATV riders completely ignore them. One day he watched an ATV rider come along and steal every 'No Trespassing' sign that had been posted in the meadow.
     "And the signs I have on the back of the property up there, I am sick of replacing them," Searle said. "People have the understanding that if they don't see a sign they have the legal right to enter."
     Searle is displeased with a recent change in government policy that bans the stringing of chains across gateposts. But even before the law changed, he said, he was constantly replacing the red and orange warning flags on the chains because ATV riders would pick them off. " How stupid," said Searle. "I put the chain there for people's safety... If you come to somewhere that has got a gate or chain, it's there for one of two reasons; whoever owns that land wants to keep something out, or they want to keep something in."
     Searle said he replaced one chain three times. "I have it bolted on. They'll show up with wrenches and take chain and all and go on,” he said. “They figure if the chain is not there, they can enter that car road. But when they enter that car road, they've got nowhere to go but into a field, because there's no way out. But it doesn't seem to deter them."
     Another time last year, said Searle, he watched four ATV bikers go up over a neighbour's hay meadow. "I went after them in the pickup," he said. "I find that a lot of these kids now have helmet cameras. And they have a great laugh out of watching someone chase them... They could be putting that up on the internet."
     Searle said the bikers don't think about the cost of the damage they inflict when they spin their knobby tires cutting through turf and throwing clots of sods in the air. "You take say a 1,000 square foot front lawn," said Searle. "That could be $3,500 or $4,000 to get someone in to do your lawn - topsail, seed it, sod it, whatever. What do they think a 10 or 20 acre meadow costs?"
     A hayfield may look like nature put it there, but it actually involved a lot of work by somebody. "It takes an awful or of work," Searle said. "By the time you put a bulldozer up there to clear it off, and an excavator to drain it, then it has to be ditched, then rock raked - there are machines for that - and then rock picked and scarified three times, then seeded - that's the easy part. Now you've got to try to get the seed to grow with fertilizer, limestone, manure - all of this stuff has to be trucked in and paid for. And then you've got some fool in on a bike tearing it up? And they know what they are doing is wrong, but they think it's their personal playground and that they can do what they like."
     There is a fork in the pole line that run on back of Searle's land; one route runs to Shea Heights the other to Petty Harbour. A gravel road, owned by Newfoundland Power and dividing Searle’s property from his neighbour, runs from the Main Road to the fork. Instead of taking the dirt road all the way to the pole line, Searle said, he's often seen bikers cross onto his neighbours' hay fields to spin up sods along their way.
     "It's an absolute lack of respect," Searle said. "They know the difference. It's just a big laugh to see whoever can flick the sods the highest... They don't know how frustrating it is. It costs thousands of dollars to put those fields there and maintain them, all for the sake of getting a bit of hay out of it to feed your animals or sell."
     Searle said it’s useless to call the police. “I'm after having them here a dozen times. And really, what are they going to do?" he said.
     Two summers ago, Searle said, he had an acre of potatoes planted in one of his back meadows. "I was here one day and I saw a bunch of four wheelers taking the gate down and driving back and forth through the potatoes and by the time I got up there they were left and laughing. Out of a full acre of potatoes, I'd say a third of it was destroyed. And there was no other purpose of doing it other than for them to have a laugh. I was going to set vegetables up there this year, because there's very good soil up there, but I said, 'What's the sense?'"
Searle said the bikers know the farmer's vehicles and some of them like teasing and taunting them when they are home.
     The odd time when a farmer manages to get an ATV rider into court, Searle said, it’s not unusual for a judge to throw the case out.
     “It’s like you have no legal right to protect your property,” Searle said.

Posted on November 9, 2015 .