Britain will never part with bearskin hats

The British military says it will meet with animal rights activists over the royal guards' use of bearskin hats.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opposes the use of bearskins to make the hats. The animal rights group says killing Canadian black bears to make the headgear is cruel. It has urged the British military to come up with an artificial alternative.

The Ministry of Defense says it is open to using synthetic materials but has yet to find a high-quality, weather-resistant replacement for the fur.

The ministry said Monday that a defense minister would meet with the group this week.

Five army regiments wear the 18-inch (45 centimeter) black hats during ceremonial duties at London's Buckingham Palace and other royal sites.

A bearskin is a tall fur cap, usually worn as part of a ceremonial military uniform. Traditionally, the bearskin was the headgear of grenadiers, and is still worn by regiments of grenadiers and foot guards in various armies.

The cloth caps worn by the original grenadiers in European armies during the 17th century were frequently trimmed with fur. The practice fell into disuse until the second half of the eighteenth century when grenadiers in the British, Spanish and French armies began wearing high fur hats with cloth tops and, sometimes, ornamental front plates. The purpose appears to have been to add to the apparent height and impressive appearance of these troops both on the parade ground and the battle field.

During the nineteenth century, the expense of obtaining bearskin caps (and difficulty of maintaining them in good condition on active service) led to this form of headdress becoming generally limited to guardsmen, bands or other units having a ceremonial role. The British Foot Guards did however wear bearskins in battle during the Crimean War and on peacetime manouvers until the introduction of khaki service dress in 1902.

Following the Battle of Waterloo and the action in which they gained their name, the Grenadier Guards were permitted to wear the bearskin. This tradition was later extended to the other two regiments of Guards. The officers of Fusilier regiments also wore the bearskin as part of their ceremonial uniform. The bearskin should not be mistaken for the busby, which is a much smaller fur cap worn by the Royal Horse Artillery and hussar regiments in full dress. Nor should it be confused with the similar but smaller 'Sealskin' cap worn by other ranks of the Royal Fusiliers, actually made of racoon skin.

The standard bearskin of the British Foot Guards is 18 inches tall, weighs one and a half pounds and is made from the fur of the Canadian brown bear and is dyed black. This is because the brown bear has thicker fuller fur. The British Army purchase the hats, which are known as caps, from a British hat maker, which sources its pelts from an international auction. The hatmakers purchase between 50 and 100 black bear skins each year at a cost of about £650 each. Proper maintenance of the caps allows them to last for decades. Some bearskin caps in use are reportedly more than 100 years old.

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