The sight of a member of the King's Guard standing on ceremony outside Buckingham Palace, sporting that immaculate red-and-black uniform and tall bearskin cap, is an iconic sight of London. But why do the soldiers wear them? And is it controversial?

Why do the King's Guards wear bearskin?

Bearskin caps were introduced by the British Army following the Battle of Waterloo (June 1815). The idea was to make the soldiers appear taller and more intimidating when in combat. Today, five of the British Army's foot guard regiments wear bearskin caps.

Are bearskin caps made of real bearskin?

The short answer is yes: they are made from bear pelts sourced from Canada. According to the MoD, bears are not hunted to order; rather the pelts are a product of "legal and licensed hunting authorised in Canada by provincial and territorial governments."

Is the wearing of bearskin caps controversial?

Yes. The continued use of bearskin caps has caused controversy for some time.

In January 2022, animal rights organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), supported by singer Alesha Dixon, launched a petition calling on the MoD to replace the bearskin caps with a faux fur alternative. The petition, which received more than 106,000 signatures, was debated in Parliament in July 2022.

During the debate, Jeremy Quin, then Minister for Defence Procurement, said that the MoD had looked into synthetic alternatives but that none had so far come up to the standards of real fur, failing to meet all five necessary criteria: water absorption and penetration, appearance, drying rate and compression.

According to Quin, the MoD is not wedded to "the material making up the cap", and that "there is no opposition at all to the idea of using faux fur if it can be proved to work."

Yet PETA, who has created a synthetic alternative with faux fur manufacturer Ecopel, believes this product does meet - and in some areas even exceeds - the ministry's standards, in accordance with laboratory tests.

It filed for a judicial review in December 2022, on the grounds of 'unlawful conduct', claiming that the Government had failed to properly consider a synthetic replacement, and had failed to evaluate the findings of laboratory testing.

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PETA has since revealed that the High Court rejected the application, on the basis that whether or not to accept the test results was a 'discretionary decision'.

Nonetheless, the organisation remains undeterred. “PETA has gone to considerable expense to create a faux bearskin cap that meets all the stated criteria," said senior campaigns manager, Kate Werner, in a statement. "We will keep the pressure on the MoD so that, after nearly 20 years of stalling, a faux fur cap can finally be marched into service.”

Main image: King's Guard © Carnegie42/Getty