Now, to the distress of the islanders, the sheep may be on the move. The two prison farms which own them are to close in August because, says the Home Office, they are unprofitable. As a result, many of the flock may be transferred to prison farms elsewhere in the country.
The possible loss of the sheep from the island where they were first bred has caused consternation among Portlanders, who see them as a symbol of their vanishing way of life. They remember stories about how their turn-of-the-century forefathers used to herd a thousand sheep down to the cliffs at dawn and back to their pens at sunset, and how they washed them by making them swim in the river Mere.
Although the new Shell Guide to England declared the sheep extinct in 1970 because they had not been seen on Portland since the end of the Second World War, a research group returned them to the island in the early Eighties, and 70 of these unusually small and woolly animals with long tails and horns can today be seen grazing on Portland Bill.
Their origins go back at least to the days of King George III, who enjoyed eating the sweet and delicate meat; another legend says they came from a Spanish galleon wrecked during the Armada.
More recently the sheep have been the responsibility of the prison farms, set up in 1948 to provide agricultural training and rehabilitation for young offenders and adult inmates at The Verne prison. In the past 10 years, unprofitability has forced the farms to close a dairy, but they have continued to rear heifers, pigs, and the Portland sheep.
The sheep are not commercially viable because, unlike ordinary sheep, they cannot breed twins. With only 1,000 surviving in the rest of the country, mainly cared for by rare-breed groups, their future has become the centre of attention as the farms run down their operations.
Chris McGown, an agricultural instructor who has worked on the farms for 25 years, said: "We will all miss them. They are an added attraction to the island, but there is a real risk that we will not find accommodation for them here. Some local people have expressed interest, but it's not just a question of buying a sheep. You have to move them around, so you have to have more than one field. We have had a request for four yews and a ram, but you cannot have just one ram because you'll mess up the bloodlines."
The outgoing mayor of Portland, George Nash, has written to Michael Howard and the agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg, to lobby against moving the sheep to other prisons. He said: "I don't want to say what I have said in the letters until I have received replies, but I am doing everything I can to keep the sheep and pigs here as a going concern."
Fran Lockyer, whose converted-lighthouse bed-and-breakfast at Portland Bill overlooks the field where the sheep are currently grazing, said she would let out her own field to anyone wanting to buy some of the sheep. A more likely saviour is Jeremy Barber, a pig farmer at nearby Beaminster, who says he wants to take over the pig-rearing unit at the farm and keep the sheep on Portland. He said: "I have written various letters and am now waiting for replies. If we get the pig farm, the sheep will be safe with us."
If his application fails, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust says it has been promised a loan which would enable it to buy some of the sheep. Alison Hubbard, secretary of a local branch of the trust, said she had recently met the farm manager who had said several prisons were interested in taking half of the sheep. She said: "We will buy any that are not transferred and re-house them. We are looking at least to keep them in Dorset, but the main objective is to keep them on Portland."
It is understood that when the Prison Service bought the sheep in the early Eighties, it agreed to return them to the island if it sold up. But the agreement does not necessarily include sheep born since the purchase. A Home Office spokesman said: "The Prison Service is looking at how it can relocate the livestock at The Verne prison with the welfare of the animals foremost in mind."Reuse content