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The Government was urged by opposition MPs to stop “funding the suffering” of bears and end its involvement with the “barbaric” killing of the animals to make ceremonial bearskin caps for the Queen’s Guard.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) disputed assertions that there is currently a viable alternative, saying the bears are never hunted to order and are procured after licensed culls in Canada.
The Westminster Hall debate was opened by SNP MP Martyn Day in response to a petition, which received more than 106,000 signatures, to replace the bearskins used by the Queen’s Guard with a faux fur alternative.
The MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said: “It seems undeniable… that by continuing to purchase hats made from the fur of black bears the MoD is funding the suffering of bears in Canada.”
“Instead of giving deference to tradition, we ought to acknowledge that society and attitudes have moved on, technology has moved on.”
He said “at least one bear is killed to produce a single cap” and asked the Government “to find a solution which ends its involvement with cruel, barbaric practices towards bears”.
And he cited research released by the non-profit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which he said shows a faux fur created by manufacturer Ecopel “performs in a very similar way to, or in some instances, better”.
“What is difficult to understand is why the Government would wish to continue with the use of an animal product resulting from slaughtered bears for ceremonial headgear in the face of such strong public opinion,” he said, citing evidence she said shows the majority of the public is opposed to using real fur.
He and other MPs described how the Canadian government licenses hunting of black bears, with Mr Day saying “this hunting involves violent killing of bears”.
“In some provinces the use of the bow and arrow is permitted, leading to a slow and painful death for those poor animals,” he said.
Independent MP Margaret Ferrier said: “The use of real bearskin in ceremonial caps is antiquated, costly and unnecessary.”
Labour MP Christian Wakeford (Bury South), who defected to the party from the Conservatives, said: “For nearly two centuries the MoD has waged war on black bears while doing almost nothing to further the search for materials to replace the use of their skins. And it quite simply isn’t good enough in 2022.”
He said there is no reason for bearskin caps to be used when “a nearly indistinguishable faux fur has been developed”.
He said the MoD has been offered the faux alternative material “free of charge” up until 2030, adding that sticking with the current option would cost “well in excess of £1 million a year”.
“It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do as well,” he said.
SNP MP John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) said there is “no basis” to claim “that the bears would be killed anyway”.
He said: “The MoD has no idea what the provenance is of the dead bears that it buys. The evidence again is that they are often nursing mothers. When they are killed to make the hat, their cubs starve to death.”
“People find it jarring to see soldiers wearing hats made out of dead bears when a viable, affordable and ethical alternative is available,” he said.
Defence minister Jeremy Quin said: “We are not wedded to the material used. We are wedded to this iconic symbol for the British Army. If there is an alternative that works, that will be taken very seriously.”
But he said previous tests had shown alternative materials, including those put forward by Peta, did not meet the required standards, and said the MoD had not seen the latest data or product MPs referenced in the debate.
The MoD acquired 107 bearskins in 2020 and 31 in 2021, he said, adding the MoD is “sparing in the acquisitions we make”.
The MoD says bears are never hunted to order for its use, and Mr Quin said: “The pelts required are by-products of what are legal and licensed hunts, authorised in Canada by provincial and territorial governments.”
“Where a suitable, affordable and sustainable alternative to animal products exists, these will be used,” he added.