Threat to Bearskin 'Busby' Gives Soldiers Something to Roar About

British defense minister backed by animal rights group is challenging an old tradition.

Nearly half a million brown bears in Canada are probably breathing sighs of relief, but officers and men of Queen Elizabeth II's most distinguished regiments are grinding their teeth in disciplined fury.

Defense Minister Lord Gilbert has told them the lofty hats made from real bearskin that have topped the heads of the queen's elite guard for more than two centuries may soon be replaced by hats made of fake fur.

The royal units are what tourists see when they press against the railings of Buckingham Palace to watch the famous changing-of-the-guard ceremony. The glossy fur of their high-rise headgear gleams in the sun, and even holds up well in London's frequent rain.

Gen. Sir Willie Rous of the Coldstream Guards complains that Lord Gilbert's edict is a threat to his men's sartorial splendor.

"In wet weather, synthetic fiber looks terrible," the general complains. "Anyway, the Canadian bear is not a threatened species, so where is the problem?"

The answer to that appears to lie somewhere in the Gilbert household.

Lady Gilbert is on the committee of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and her husband has a long-established reputation as an animal lover.

Twenty years ago, when he held a defense post in a previous Labour Party government, he imposed a ban on the use of sperm whale oil as a lubricant by Britain's armed forces.

In threatening to consign the 18-inch-tall bearskin hats to the dustbin of history, Lord Gilbert is taking on not only a crack military unit, but one of the most conservative bodies on the planet.

The bearskin hat has been worn by Guardsmen since the British thrashed the French in the Battle of Waterloo (1815). For the soldiers who wear it, it is an icon of military tradition. A Defense Ministry spokesman estimates that some 2,500 bearskin hats are in use in the British Army. To replace worn-out headgear, the Defense Ministry purchases 150 pelts from dealers in Canada, where each year Inuit hunters shoot 25,000 bears under license.

In Britain, the skins are dyed black and fashioned by Army hatters into the distinctive round-topped bonnets, with plaited brass chin straps that look sharp in color snapshots when shown to friends back home

There are precedents for depriving guardsmen of authentic uniform parts. Some years ago, after complaints by animal-rights groups, the leopard skins worn by regimental drummers were replaced with man-made fibers.

This week, a group calling itself Libearty, which campaigns on behalf of bears, gave the defense minister solid backing. A spokesperson said: "Guardsmen have rights, but so do brown bears."

Rous has signaled that he and fellow Guards officers will argue that banning bearskin hats will benefit no one, least of all Canadian bears.

"The animals are culled," he says. "They will die anyway, regardless of what our men wear."

A Defense Ministry spokesman, coming close to defending the Guard's units against his own boss, recalled the results of tests on fake-fur hats.

"When it rained, it was like a bad hair day," he said, adding: "Synthetic fur is subject to static electricity, and that was rather embarrassing when the men passed under power pylons."

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