Judianne Davis of East Setauket figured out fairly quickly the type of special exercise gear she’d need to please Lucy, a border collie she and her husband, Bill Van Nostrand, adopted 12 years ago from an upstate cattle farm.
“I thought, ‘What do border collies do?,” Davis recalls. Her answer was: “They herd sheep.” Other dog lovers might have bought agility apparatus. Davis bought three sheep. Then she tried to train Lucy — named after Davis’ favorite comedian — into a prize sheepherder.
It turns out that, at 2 years old, Lucy was already too old to learn herding. But not Davis. The pasture offered a perfect pastime for the Alzheimer’s disease researcher, who works in the Stony Brook University Department of Neurosurgery. Davis, who is 55, has found a second career as a shepherdess, sheep farmer and owner of a sheep-raising business called Long Island Sound Sheep. At last count, the family has grown to three border collies and 41 sheep.
Herb Strobel, 54, executive director of Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead, who owns the Center Moriches acreage where Davis winters her sheep, says Davis’ sheepherding activities are part of an agricultural trend on the East End.
“There has been a bit of a resurgence of raising sheep here on Long Island, especially over the last 10 years or so,” Strobel says. For instance, “8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue has around 70 or 80 Icelandic sheep,” he says. “In Mattituck, Browder’s Birds also raises a fair number of sheep as well.”
With no expansive East End fields for sheep to roam, Davis does most of her herding at Hallockville, where she’ll put on three demonstrations Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. (See box.)
“Judianne will be highlighting the skills of her dogs as well as herself to show the public how the dogs work together with the trainer to herd sheep,” Strobel says.
On a recent spring afternoon, Davis walked to the sheep paddock at Hallockville Museum Farm with Van Nostrand, who is also her boss in the laboratory and a Stony Brook professor of neurosurgery medicine. “In the health sciences center, we have no windows. This is the escape,” Davis said of the pastoral landscape.
Lucy tagged along, but this visit was really about working her “sisters” — Fergie, 2, and TeeCA, 7, who has won ribbons at sheepherding competitions throughout the Northeast. Davis uses a sheepherder’s whistle and staff to train her dogs for these events, where teams of handlers and highly trained dogs are judged in different phases of sheepherding typically found on a farm.
Sheepherding is as much an exercise for the mind as it is for the body, Davis says. “I have three different physical entities to consider when on the field: myself, the dog and the sheep, all of which have a mind of their own.” She thinks about research projects when she’s outside with her animals. “The venue definitely stimulates my divergent thinking,” she says.
Fans of the movie classic “Babe” will recognize the quaint pastime of competitive sheepherding, in which border collies — and sometimes very smart pigs — can win accolades moving sheep around a pasture. Davis, a former zookeeper who returned to college to become a science researcher, has found yet a third unusual occupation raising sheep, and has earned a wheelbarrow full of ribbons at state fairs for working dogs trained in the fields of Suffolk County. At the end of a workday, instead of relaxing in front of a TV or working out at a gym, she looks forward to working her sheep with the newest addition to her border collie family.
This afternoon, Davis is full of energy after completing a Power of a Woman triathlon at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in East Meadow with her daughter, Waela, 11. “It is good to have an activity outside of your daily occupation,” Davis says.
As Van Nostrand, Lucy and Fergie watch from the sidelines, Davis demonstrates the prowess she and her dog have on the field. She toots a shepherd’s whistle, and the high-pitched sound sets in motion a barnyard ballet as TeeCA circles a quintet of sheep, moving the timid animals around the field and eventually sweeping them back through the paddock gate.
Davis bought TeeCA from a Pennsylvania sheep farm when the dog was 4 months old and gave her a name every science nerd could love. “TeeCA’s name comes from the molecules of DNA — thymine, cytosine, adenine,” Davis explains.
TeeCA, who has been trained by Davis since she was 9 months old, turned out to be a natural. Together TeeCA and Davis have won ribbons in sheepherding competitions throughout the Northeast, from the Massachusetts Sheep & Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, Massachusetts, to the Leatherstocking Sheepdog Trials in upstate Cooperstown. TeeCA “rarely left a trial without an award ribbon,” Davis says.
But TeeCA has suffered a leg injury and is being retired from competition. Enter Fergie, who was imported from England when she was 10 weeks old and is named after the former Duchess of York. But Fergie has a lot to learn before running in TeeCA’s tracks.
“Lie down!” Davis scolds when Fergie doesn’t heed the whistle.
Davis grew up in Long Beach, California, and graduated from the state’s Moorpark College. She interned at the Los Angeles Zoo before landing her first zookeeper job — caring for Hugh Hefner’s private exotic bird and monkey collection at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
Although she often saw Hefner roaming in his fabled smoking jacket, “I kept my clothes on,” Davis cracks. She worked with birds at the Denver Zoo and Miami Metro Zoo before deciding to return to college. Davis earned a bachelor of science degree in biological sciences from the University of California, Irvine, in 1992, a master of science degree in biology from California State University in Long Beach in 1995, and a master of arts in teaching grade 7-12 biology from Stony Brook University in 2008.
She met Van Nostrand while working at UC Irvine and eventually accepted his invitation to move East and start a family, including dogs. They were married in 2000 on the cliffs beneath the Montauk Lighthouse.
“It’s just fun,” Van Nostrand says of his wife’s sheepherding. “It’s definitely a unique sport, and the dogs love it, too,” he says.
Fergie also has the chops to be a ribbon winner, Davis says. She bought Fergie from a friend who owns a large sheep farm in Lincolnshire, England. “Fergie started getting into the sheep when my back was turned at 4 months old,” Davis says. “One time at the farm, I heard a dog barking and thought it was a neighbor’s small dog. I looked across the field and saw 5-month-old Fergie holding 16 ewes against the fence in the corner. Those ewes did not want to move.”
Fergie also showed her grit to an 800-pound cow, which escaped from its pen at Hallockville, roamed the property and ventured onto Sound Avenue.
“Fergie got in front of the cow, bit her on the nose and put her back in the pen,” Davis says.
The dogs work with Katahdin sheep, a special breed that resembles goats and has hair instead of wool. They are bred in Maine specifically for their meat, Davis says. “Their meat is not gamy, it’s very sweet and mild,” Davis says. The profits from her business pay the sheep’s upkeep.
“I sell the lambs, and that pays for the hay and the leasing of the land, and any vet calls that are necessary,” she says. The lambs are sold to private customers.
To critics who believe that selling the herd for meat is inhumane, Davis says, “I care very much for my sheep and I take them for walks into the hills in Hallockville. They eat the bushes, people bring them vegetables. These animals are well-taken care of and well-loved.”
Fleece & Fiber Fair, with animal displays and demonstrations in basketweaving, knitting, needle felting and more.
Sunday, May 21; 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Hallockville Museum Farm
6038 Sound Ave., Riverhead
Cost: $6 adults, $4 children 5-12, kids 4 and younger free.
— JIM MERRITT