A group of campaigners broke into the shed where the world’s first clone of an adult mammal was kept at the Roslin Institute in Midlothian.
The raiders planned to take Dolly hostage to highlight their opposition to the emerging technology of animal cloning.
However their plot was foiled when they found that the shed was so full of sheep that it was impossible to single Dolly out and they fled the scene empty handed.
Dolly, the world’s most famous sheep, caused a sensation when she was born in 1996. The cloning process produced Dolly after 276 failed attempts.
The attempt to take Dolly hostage in the autumn of 1998 is revealed in a new book by Mark Lynas, who once led the UK campaign against “frankenfoods”, as GM crops and livestock were dubbed by critics.
In Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs, Lynas, 44, reveals how he and three co-conspirators gained access to the Roslin Institute and found which of the sheds was Dolly’s home.
Lynas wrote: “As part of a small and secret group we planned what would have been out most daring action of all, had it come off as intended.
“We had decided to steal science’s first cloned farm animal, the world-famous Dolly the sheep.
“Three activists and I duly took ourselves up to Scotland one autumn day in mid-1998 to carry out the plan.
“During daylight I posed as an academic researcher and was granted access to the Roslin Institute library. Once past the front desk I had free run of the corridors and roamed about trying to find which one of the several exterior sheds contained Dolly.
“By the evening we decided we knew the right livestock shed. Long after the sun had gone down, the four of us crept down a country track about a mile from the back of the Roslin Institute.”
Lynas told how after crouching in the cold for hours, their meticulous planning was undone when they eventually got to the shed.
He added: “The sheds were full of sheep. Disaster!
“As any half-competent shepherd can attest, all sheep look more or less the same. Cloned sheep, pretty much by definition, look even more the same.
“After all our elaborate precautions - we never discussed the plan on the phone, for example, in case of police bugs - the Roslin scientists had outfoxed us by hiding Dolly in plain sight. Frustrated and shivering, we crept back to Edinburgh grumpy and empty-handed.”
Dolly was cloned by Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell from a cell taken from a sheep’s mammary gland, which inspired the Roslin team to name her after the country and western singer Dolly Parton,
The embryo was then transferred to another ‘surrogate mother’ sheep and Dolly was born a ‘normal, vigorous lamb’.
The fact she was cloned from an adult cell suggested it might one day be possible to clone many adult animals and humans.
Dolly died aged six and her preserved body was put on display at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.
Lynas’s book follows his 2013 decision to break with his fellow activists and admit his anti-gentically modified organism(GMO) campaign was wrong.
At the time, he said: “I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops.
“I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
“As an environmentalist who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path. I now regret it completely.”