The brutal trade behind the Army's headwear

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The Independent Online

A large black bear and her cub emerge from the undergrowth, drawn to the scent of a rusty oil drum filled with a pungent bait of pizza, doughnuts and skinned animals. As the pair begin to tuck in, a shot rings out and the mother lets out a wounded roar and flees to what is almost certainly a painful and lingering death.

This scene is from secret footage of what animal rights campaigners claimed yesterday is a "cruel and unnecessary" trade in skins from the North American black bear, a trade flourishing partly to enable the British Army to satisfy 200 years of military tradition and crowds of tourists to London.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) released the film of the "bait and shoot" tactics used by Canadian hunters at Westminster yesterday. The pelts are sold to fur auctioneers, whose clients include companies hired by the Ministry of Defence to supply Britain's illustrious Guards regiments with bearskin hats for use in ceremonial duties such as the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony to mark the Queen's birthday.

Peta, which is asking the MoD to use synthetic materials when it needs replacements for the hats, has figures showing £321,000 of taxpayers' money has been spent since 2002 at Canadian fur auctions to buy black bearskins to refurbish its stock of 2,500 hats at a cost of £650 per pelt. The Army needs about 50 bearskins a year, anti-cruelty activists say.

The welfare group used a press conference in the Houses of Parliament to release footage shot last October of how hunters in Ontario exploit the bears' liking for easy pickings.

The method is banned in the European Union and many American states as well as British Columbia in Canada. A preference for adult mother bears with cubs, because then she has a particularly thick and lustrous hide, results in many young bear orphans. Research in Canada suggests 70 per cent of orphaned cubs die within 12 months due to disease, starvation and predators.

Watch the bearskins campaign film
Courtesy of PETA

Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister, who is among 200 MPs who signed an early day motion calling on the MoD to use synthetic materials, said: "Each year, tens of thousands of North American bears die in this practice. The bears are shot, sometimes several times, before they die. Such practices would not be tolerated here. We complain to Canada about the slaughter of seal pups and yet the Ministry of Defence is buying material that has been produced in this exceptionally cruel fashion."

An MoD spokeswoman said: "Some alternatives to real fur are already in use by the Royal Artillery and others, and we are in discussions with Peta to identify improved fake fur. A lightweight synthetic alternative has not as yet emerged which keeps its appearance and shape in all weather conditions."

There are about 600,000 North American black bears and 10 per cent are killed every year. The species is not endangered.