Longtime Fort Saskatchewan shepherds pass torch to new family

An end-of-summer tradition in Fort Saskatchewan involving dozens of sheep is now being led by new shepherds.

For decades, Kathy and Ralph Playdon have spent their summers tending to a herd of sheep as part of Fort Saskatchewan’s Sheep Grazing Program. The couple decided to retire last season, passing the torch to a new family.

“We would still love to do it, but after 29 years we were feeling it would be nice to have a summer holiday,” said Ralph Playdon.

Fort Saskatchewan’s herd of 50 sheep are now tended to by Pien and Natasja Steinbusch, who will lead the Sheep Leaving Parade this year during the Labour Day long weekend.

As the season comes to an end, Pien Steinbusch says the past three months tending to the sheep has been amazing.

“It was amazing to see how many people come in a day just to see the sheep,” said Pien.

She says a typical day includes letting the sheep out of their pen and down a hill where they’re met by people with apples and carrots to feed.

“When it’s a really nice day, you get tons and tons of people that bring and feed them apples which is hilarious to watch because the sheep just completely crowd around them,” said Pien. “I learned that you definitely have to say, ‘Don’t run!’ a lot, but that’s OK. Once the summer went on, it definitely got better.”

Natasja also says the summer was a success, despite not knowing what to expect going into the season.

“It doesn’t feel like we’ve been here for three months, and I’m kind of speechless about it honestly, because it’s difficult to explain to people what it’s all about unless you actually experience and do it,” said Natasja.

Fort Saskatchewan’s Sheep Grazing Program started out as a city grass control project, involving around 450 sheep. But as Kathy Playdon explains, once the city began to build on the land and the number of people that visited the sheep increased, the city was close to shutting down the program.

But the people’s love for the sheep ensured they would stick around for years to come.

“The people that come here say ‘We’ve been here as kids, and now we get to take our own kids here to come see the sheep,’” said Natasja.

Even though they won’t be leading the parade this year, they say passing the torch to the Steinbuschs has worked better than anyone could have imagined.

“It’s really comforting just to see this family out here doing it differently, there’s not much change, but it evolved every year for us, so there’s just been that little evolution again this year,” said Ralph. “They’re doing a great job for the city, a great job for the sheep, but mostly a great job for the kids.”

Although retired, the Playdons don’t plan on being strangers to the program.

“We hated to go, we love to come visit, but times move on,” said Ralph.

The flock will march through the streets of Fort Saskatchewan on Sep. 6 between 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Carlyle Fiset