A long-dead species is being creating in gene pools in the South of England. James Spoonbender has been finding out more.
A startling new discovery will be revealed for the first time on tomorrow's edition of Countryfile, namely the first flock of underwater sheep genetically reared in captivity. For the past 27 years, scientists working in the Somerset region have been attempting to recreate the long-extinct species from traces of their DNA caught on prehistoric barbed wire fences.
Amphibious sheep would have been a common sight to anyone spending a day at the seaside during the Cretaceous period, but it was long believed that the species became extinct at the same time as their Icthyosaur cousins twice removed. However various accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that, like the Coelacanth, one breed of acquatic sheep did not in fact die out. The following description was recorded on 5th February 1723 in the ship's log of Capt. John Abrahams of the whaling ship Orion:
"And there was a great frothing of the waters, and a loud bleating was heard from beneath the waves which chilled the blood of every man on deck. Then there was a cry of "Sheep ahoy" and we all did make ready with the harpoon. With a mighty baa, the beast erupted from the water, and the crew stood in awe until the bosun gave the command to fire. The first harpoon glanced off the creature, its thick fleece hardened by the salt of the ocean, but the second hit its target. A great cheer went up among the men, and we dined that night on roast lamb, content that the wool would fetch a high price upon our return to Plymouth."
Despite many reports of this nature, no conclusive evidence was ever discovered, and biologists feared that the animal would remain little more than a legend. However, with the great technological developments in deep sea diving made since the Second World War, the animals became the subject of renewed interest.
Bortex UK are the country's leading manufacturers of underwater fashion accessories, and the principal financiers for the new project. A spokesman explained: "One of the main problems facing deep sea divers is the temperature. Although standard rubber suits keep the water out, they don't do much to prevent the cold. Waterproof wool is just what we've been after for a long time. These sheep have a thick, warm fleece with a remarkably low water retension. Diving suits knitted from this wool could revolutionise the whole practice."
Despite the lucrative interests of Bortex, the biologists in charge of the project stress that their interest is purely scientific. The team is now headed by 19 year old prodigy Prof. Tim Rickman. "The hardest part was developing the sheep's gills," he told us. "It took years of matching sheep and fish genes with the DNA samples we already had, but we've finally done it. We've used salmon DNA in creating our sheep, which does have one unfortunate drawback - every springtime one or two sheep in the flock try to swim upstream to their birthplace, and of course if a couple start doing it then they all want to join in!"
Nevertheless, he claims to be very satisfied at the result, which will be on view to the world for the first time tomorrow. In the meantime, there has been much controversy raised about the justification behind such genetic engineering. Last week the Bishop of Doncaster claimed "the sheep raise a number of moral questions." The official response was "Only the very clever ones do."
The Very Reverend Archibald Stott, vicar of St Michael's Food Hall, Chichester, has similar objections. "Does humanity have the right to fiddle about with genes to create such an abomination?" he asked.
"Oh yes, I certainly think so," believes Dr Runcee, Dean of Some College or Other, Cambridge, to which he later added, "But is it art?"
The whole issue is now pending judicial inquiry, and the scientists, along with Bortex and the rest of us, will simply have to wait...