IMAGE: Bearskin hats
Dusan Vranic  /  AP
Scots Guards donning bearskin hats take part in a royal procession in London in April, 2002.
updated 5/14/2005 10:02:48 AM ET 2005-05-14T14:02:48

The British army’s towering bearskin hats have been a well-known sight outside royal palaces for almost 200 years, but their days may be numbered.

Animal rights activists are demanding the hats, made from the pelts of North American black bears, be replaced by artificial fur, and one protester plans to follow Queen Elizabeth II in a bear costume when she visits Canada next week.

“It is time to confine bearskin to the history books, just as bearbaiting was confined to history books in this country,” Andrew Butler, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Friday.

Butler said one of the group’s supporters planned to follow the queen on her May 17-25 visit to Canada, which supplies the army with bearskins.

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The Ministry of Defense recently began a two-year test of a new artificial fur, the latest attempt in a decade-long search for a replacement that has so far proven unsuccessful.

Bearskin is a famously durable and luxurious fur, making it difficult to replicate. The artificial fur previously tested, usually made with nylon, did not absorb water well, tended to discolor, and stuck up at all angles with static, an army spokesman said.

For royal guards
The hats are worn by members of the five regiments — the Grenadier, Welsh, Irish, Scots and Coldstream Guards — who protect Buckingham Palace and other royal sites. The bearskin hats cost $1,218, and can last 20 to 40 years through wind, rain and sun exposure.

The army said bears are not killed expressly for their fur. Each year the army’s hat manufacturer buys roughly 100 pelts from an annual cull of tens of thousands of Canadian bears. Animal rights groups protest this is far more than is necessary to control the population.

It is thought that the army has used bearskin hats since the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, when soldiers took the hats directly off the heads of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

The army has already replaced beaver hats and leopard skins, worn by some of its soldiers, with artificial materials.

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