In the space of a few hours this week, Dianna Bowles managed to raise £60,000 to establish a gene bank in an 11th-hour bid to save the rare Herdwick sheep from extinction due to foot-and-mouth culling.
The Cumbrian Herdwick sheep are unique to Britain, and their genetic resource has been developed over hundreds of years by generations of breeders. It is feared as many as 70 per cent of the breed have already been killed in the cull.
Professor Bowles, a plant scientist and chair of biochemistry at the University of York, was known to the Herdwick breeder who pleaded for her help because breeding the sheep is her hobby. She owns a flock of 23 that she calls her mobile beta-blockers because of their calming effect.
Her aim is to protect the genetic diversity of the breed by establishing a bank of genetic material, including semen, eggs and embryos. This will become, as she says, an insurance policy in the freezer.
None of this would have been possible without the support of the Garfield Weston Foundation, a charitable organisation that put up £30,000 for the project. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food matched the funds and an appeal will be made to the public for further backing.
Speed is of the essence, and the intention is to create a non-profit making organisation called the Heritage GeneBank. Beginning with the Herdwick flock, it will go on to target other specialist and rare breeds that are facing extinction.
Professor Bowles was born in Leicester and studied plant science at the University of Newcastle and biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. She gained fellowships in Germany and Israel before moving to the University of Leeds. In 1994, she transferred to the University of York, where she established the plant laboratory and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products.