Bearskin hats are an iconic feature of royal events, including the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
The King – a keen environmentalist – is seen wearing bearskin alongside other members of the Royal Family at parades such as Trooping the Colour.
The famous actor and broadcaster Mr Stephen Fry said: ‘Tradition is never an excuse for cruelty, which is why I’m joining the call for the Ministry of Defence to stop using the fur of slaughtered wildlife and make the switch to humane faux fur for the King’s Guard’s caps.’
The 66-year-old has narrated a video for animal rights group PETA that uses footage of bears being killed by hunters in Canada.
The group claims to film hunters using bagels, biscuits and oil to bait bears before shooting them with crossbows.
‘Black bears are mercilessly killed by trophy hunters,’ he said. ‘They may then be used to make the caps used by the King’s Guard – purely ornamental headgear that serves no military purpose.
‘Bears who are shot don’t always die outright. They may flee and endure a slow and painful death from infection or blood loss – only to be found hours later after the hunters follow a blood trail.’
It takes at least one bear to provide enough fur for each cap, says Mr Fry – who added last May’s Coronation.
He claims demand for fur from the King’s Guard was ‘incentivising’ hunters.
Mr Fry says fake fur was available that was as effective as bear fur.
The Ministry of Defence said: ‘Bears are not hunted to order for the Ministry of Defence and bear pelts used are a product of legal and licensed hunts.
‘To date and to the Department’s knowledge, an alternative has yet to meet the standards required to provide an effective replacement for the bearskin ceremonial caps.’
The use of real bearskin by the Army has long been a matter of controversy.
In 2022, Boris Johnson backed its continued use, telling constituents that ‘man-made fur did not meet the standards required’ before insisting ‘all these matters are kept under review’.
Tourists visiting London flock to see the Guards in their traditional hats, which have been worn since the 1815 defeat of Napoleon.
The ceremonial headdress can only be worn by foot soldiers in certain regiments, including the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards and the Welsh Guards.
The British Army bearskin: A Napoleonic prize with 200 years of history
Bearskins, up to 18in tall and weighing around two pounds, are worn by the Grenadier, Welsh, Irish, Scots and Coldstream Guards.
They are synonymous with the pomp and splendour of events such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and the Trooping the Colour ceremony.
Made from the pelts of Canadian black bear, the material is warm and water resistant, retaining its distinctive shape no matter the weather.
Army top brass have been happy to adopt modern synthetics in other cases.
Fake leopardskin is now worn by drummers in marching bands, while the smaller busby hats worn by the King’s Troop are no longer made from beaver fur.
Bearskins were adopted in the 18th century because the brimmed hats worn by grenadiers obstructed their view when they were hurling grenades.
In 1768, it was ordered that grenadiers in the Foot Guards wear caps of black bearskin, with the motto Nec Aspera Terrent (Not even difficulties deter us) on a silver King’s Crest on the front.
At the battle of Waterloo in 1815, the First Regiment of Foot Guards defeated the grenadiers of Napoleon’s Guard. They were rewarded with the title of Grenadier Regiment, with every soldier allowed to wear a bearskin.
The Army takes 100 skins each year, thought to be a small fraction of the thousands of bears that are killed to keep numbers under control.
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This article by Rory Tingle was first published by The Daily Mail on 10 January 2024. Lead Image: The Ministry of Defence said: ‘Bears are not hunted to order for the Ministry of Defence and bear pelts used are a product of legal and licensed hunts’.