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Continuity Announcer: … and now on Radio 4, David Attenborough shares some more of his “Life Stories”…

Sir David Attenborough (wheezing away in his husky, sleep-inducing voice): When a gentleman has “the horn,” it is probably best to stay out of his way, and the same equally applies within the animal kingdom. The horn is the often-lethal weapon with which many species do battle for territory, but this implement at times fulfils a more sartorial purpose, conveying splendour as well as danger. The large horns of the Umbuway wildebeest, for example, glow a subtle luminous blue and can attract females from within a range of forty miles. Yet one of the most fearsome and beautiful horns in the animal kingdom is to be found protruding from the forehead of the unicorn.

At Leicester University, a skeleton which was for years considered to have belonged to a unicorn, was eventually identified as that of a narwhal foetus. With such hoaxes frequently exploded, the existence of the unicorn was disputed amongst zoologists for centuries, and it was popularly believed to be rooted only in the Christian imagination and not within scientific fact. During the medieval period, the unicorn was regarded as an embodiment of Christ himself, and in 1312 a popular libel that the Jews of Gloucester had crucified a unicorn led to a pogrom in which thousands were killed. By the Renaissance, the unicorn was – as far as we can gage – extinct throughout most of mainland Europe. In 1584, Sir Francis Drake attempted to capture a unicorn for Queen Elizabeth I, but he ended up fighting a duel with one of these beasts in a secluded spot on the Tuscan coast. The unfortunate knight received a gash in his side, whilst the unicorn pranced away unscratched by Drake’s rapier.

During the 1950s, I wanted to become the first broadcaster to actually film a unicorn, but for several months my cameraman and I searched the Italian countryside in vain. Perhaps this animal was more comfortable cavorting through the annals of mythology than before our cameras. Yet on a dewy morning in the foothills of Tuscany, I accidentally stumbled upon a pile of droppings of a variety which were, I was ashamed to confess, entirely unfamiliar to me. As I could then identify over seventy-thousand types of excrement, this unusual specimen presented considerable grounds for excitement. My cameraman and I repaired to the nearest village, where we consulted the local peasants about the possibility that the droppings had been evacuated from a unicorn.

According to local custom, only a virgin maiden could tame the unicorn. Fortunately, the village magistrate had a fifteen-year old daughter who claimed the ability to subdue these animals. The girl was dressed in her best frock and she departed with my cameraman and I on a hunt for the unicorn. We traipsed around the hills of Tuscany for three days without a sniff of a unicorn, until finally, as the sun set over the vineyards of Chianti, we alighted upon what looked like a large white horse drinking from a fountain in a forest clearing. Its head duly popped up, revealing the famous horn. Yet as the magistrate’s daughter approached, the unicorn suddenly looked a little disgruntled. “Are they certain that she’s a virgin?” I wondered aloud and, to my horror, the cameraman was grinning apologetically at me. The unicorn was absolutely incandescent and it chased us all around the hills, smashing up the cameras, and goring me in the backside.

Continuity Announcer: And next week, David Attenborough reminisces about swimming with piranhas in the Amazon Basin…

[“Life stories” can be heard here. There is a good article on unicorns here and some relevant detail here. Ed.]