Fort Saskatchewan is looking for some new shepherds, as Kathy and Ralph Playton are hanging up their shepherd’s crooks.
The Alberta city inadvertently created its very popular tourist attraction nearly three decades ago.
“In 1992, the railroad moved out of town and it left a huge space of land that was very difficult to mow and was going to be developed, but still needed to be maintained,” said Diane Yanch, the city’s culture and recreation services director.
So the municipality brought in 450 sheep — with the shepherds — to maintain it. The project was the first of its kind in Canada.
“As the land developed, the program became so popular that we kept it as a tourist attraction,” said Yanch. “We still do the work to maintain the grass, but it really is an opportunity for people to interact with the sheep, the shepherds and the dogs, and learn a little bit about the history.”
The flock, which now numbers about 50 animals, is only available for public viewing four days a week near the Fort Heritage Precinct. The sheep are on site about 12 to 14 weeks of the year, weather depending.
“We get a lot of visitors from the entire Edmonton region,” she said. “It’s something unique that you can bring your kids to that they don’t get to do every day. They can get up close and personal with the animals. They can feed the sheep. They watch the dogs work and they get to watch the shepherds and listen to their stories.”
The Playtons always bring their border collies, and visitors can watch the dogs interacting and working with the sheep. Visitors are told to bring carrots and apples because they are the sheep’s favourite.
The Playtons have been with the program since its inception, and bring their own sheep to the location from their place in Stony Plain. They will be hard to replace, but Yanch is hoping that some young shepherds will step up to the plate.
“The new shepherds have to have a love of interacting with people, and sharing their experience,” she said. “Knowing how to work with the sheep and dogs is equally important, but they should also know how to work with people, answer questions and get them excited about agriculture.”
The new shepherds will also have to provide about 50 to 60 sheep. The sheep are given grazing space for the three days when they are not available to the public and have a separate private area with all the grazing they could want, as well as a nighttime pen.
Many children, and some adults, have never had the opportunity to get close to farm animals, which makes the sheep program very important, Yanch said.
The program is still running this summer, with some new safety guidelines because of COVID-19. It started later in the season this year, and only 50 people are allowed on site at a time (crowds of more than 100 people were frequently the norm in past years). Visitors social distance, and hand sanitizer is provided for anyone to use after they touch the sheep.
Yanch is glad the program has been able to run this year, and hopes it can continue.
“It’s incredibly important to the city to keep the program. People love it,” she said.
“We would love for anyone who is interested in the program to come out and see the program before Kathy and Ralph retire. It’s such an important thing to be able to see and experience what it is.”
Generally, Fort Saskatchewan holds an annual parade that attracts about 600 people who come to watch the sheep leave the grazing area. This year, the parade will not be held for safety reasons. However, the Playtons and their efforts will be celebrated safely at a later date, said Yanch.