A bearskin is a tall hat worn as part of ceremonial military uniform. Bearskin hats, known as furcaps, were traditionally the headgear of grenadiers, and rare still used today by grenadier and guards regiments in various armies. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) claims that the skins used are recovered from bears culled in Canada, but is this true and is real fur even necessary?
A Brief History of the Bearskin
Bearskins are worn by several armies around the world; from Belgium to Nigeria, there are14 nations that permit members of their military to wear the Bearskin as part of ceremonial uniform.
The earliest record of a Bearskin cap being worn by soldiers was in Europe in the mid17th century. 100 years later, in 1761, the French grenadiers wore them in imitation of their Prussian counterparts. In the UK all members of the Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment of the British Army were permitted to wear the bearskin after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was something that had previously been reserved only for the grenadier company of the regiment. In 1831, two regiments of foot guards, the Coldstream and the Scots were permitted to wear the bearskin for ceremony. Since then more regiments have been added to the list of those that are authorised to wear the bear skin furcaps.
Each bearskin is made from the entire skin of a bear. British foot guards bearskins are 280 millimetres tall at the front, and 410 millimetres at the rear. They weigh 0.68 kilograms, and are made from the fur of the Canadian black bear. However, an officer's bearskin is made from the fur of the Canadian brown bear, as the female brown bear has thicker, fuller fur, the hats are then dyed black. The British Army buys these hats at a cost of around £650 each, with between 50 and 100 hats being bought each year.
Do They Really Need To Use Real Fur?
The fur used in bearskin hats comes from Canada. The MoD claims that the fur comes from government controlled annual culls of black bears. The bears are considered a nuisance in some areas due to the number of bears inhabiting area with a human population. The bears cause damage and have been known to attack people when they feel threatened or need to protect their young. Because of this the Canadian government allows people to buy a permit to hunt the bears, this is what the MoD is referring to when they use the word "cull". Each year no more than 5% of black bears are killed to control population numbers. This means that approximately 20,000 are ‘legally harvested’, and of these, the Ministry of Defence purchases roughly 100 skins each year to produce new uniforms. The bears are not killed for their fur, if no one were to buy the fur the killing would continue.
On 3 August 1888, The New York Times reported that bearskin caps may have to be phased out due to a shortage of bear skins. The article stated that bearskin were "a custom which is rather old, it is true, but is practically a useless one save for the purpose of military display." This could have been the end of the bear skin hat, but more pelts were produced and the practice continued. In 1997, over 100 years later, Minister for Defence Procurement Lord Gilbert said that he wanted to see bearskins phased out as soon as possible due to ethical concerns, but no suitable replacement was available at that time. From then until now there is no evidence that the MoD has invested in truly trying to find a bear friendly alternative. However, the world's top faux furrier, ECOPEL, working with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have created a faux fur that behaves in almost exactly the same way as the real bear fur and they look pretty close to identical. The MoD says that this faux fur is not water resistant, the faux fur would not maintain its shape and appearance in the same way that real fur does and that the faux fur is not comfortable to wear. Tests have shown that the faux fur is water resistant, that it could be considered water proof as no moisture passed through to the inside of the hat, the faux fur hats also dry faster. The MoD has never taken a sample of the faux fur to test its durability, yet they claim that it would not last as long as a real fur hat, which has to be replaced or refurbished every few years anyway. Regarding the faux fur being comfortable, the MoD has never given anyone a faux fur bearskin to wear, they have simply decided that the hat must be uncomfortable as it's suits them to say so.
A petition was started by PETA which reached the threshold for the UK government to debate the matter of the Ministry of Defence continuing to use the fur of Canadian bears. There is no need for this, it is cruel, it is expensive, it means wearing the pain, suffering and death of an animal on your head. Hopefully, this will be the last time that this will be debated as the importing of bear fur for a hat comes to an end.