EUROPEAN politicians yesterday spelled the end of the traditional Scottish sporran by voting to ban the sale of seal products across the continent.
The move will mean the manufacture and sale of sealskin sporrans will be illegal from next autumn. This will affect existing unsold stock and also the second-hand trade.
The vast majority of sporrans worn with the traditional Scottish national dress are made from sealskin.
The governments of individual European nations still need to back the law, but officials said that would be a formality and the ban was expected to take effect in October.
The ban, aimed at ending the cruel slaughter of seals, was welcomed by campaigners and most political parties yesterday, although some criticised EU interference in British affairs.
Animal rights activists said there were alternatives, and suggested that most people would not want to wear a sealskin sporran if they knew the suffering caused in creating it.
However, members of the Highland dress industry hit out at the decision and said it would spell the end for the traditional Scottish sporran.
The industry is now expected to turn to alternative materials, such as synthetic fabrics or rabbit fur, which experts claim do not have the same quality and are not traditional.
They say the ban will cause the end of part of Scotland's heritage and destroy a tradition going back hundreds of years. One industry member, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said the ban was going to "destroy Scottish heritage".
He added: "I don't know what we are going to do. This is something we have been dreading.
"Synthetic sporrans don't look the same. Nothing else has that kind of appealing texture.
"It's going to have serious implications. I think lots of places will close down."
He said he did not agree with inhumane killing of seals, but argued they were overpopulated so culls would still be needed.
Duncan Chisholm, chairman of the Kilt Makers Association of Scotland, added that there must be a humane way to continue to get seal pelts for sporrans.
Canada's east coast seal hunt is the world's largest, killing an average of 300,000 harp seals annually. Curbing the Canadian hunt was the focus of the EU bill because of the size of the cull and the way seals were killed – either clubbed or shot with rifles.
Josey Sharrad, a campaigner from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "There are lots of cruelty-free alternatives that we would recommend to sporran makers. I think most people buying sporrans don't realise they come from seals."
She said most sealskin on sale in the UK was for sporrans.
It is estimated that up to 500,000 worth of sealskins pass through the UK every year. The trade is mainly explained by agents who import the pelts and re-export them to Russia and the Far East, as well as the purchases made by the sporran industry.
A spokesman for Ecostorm, which carried out an investigation into sealskins coming into Scotland, said the supply chain was "complex".
"There were a number of origins. Some of it was coming from supposedly sustainable seal culls or hunts, including those in Greenland. What we found, though, was that many dealers were misleading the customers by saying they were made from Greenland skins when they were actually coming from Canada."
He added investigations showed the UK had become a major trading hub for seal pelts, with the end product often being sold in other European countries or China because seal-fur clothing was not in fashion here.
He added that whereas sealskin coats were not fashionable, sporrans had until recently not been the focus of attention.
"It's a very unlikely item to link to this sort of issue," he said.
"The impression I have is that it's something people buy as a tourist trinket or fancy dress."
The Canadian seal cull has become an annual showdown between campaigners and the authorities in Canada.
Harp seals are killed for their fur and other byproducts, including oil, meat and body parts prized for aphrodisiac purposes. MEPs endorsed the bill yesterday, which called seal hunting "inherently barbaric", by a majority of 550 to 49.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The EU ban won't stop people buying sporrans made from other materials."
However, a spokesman for Ukip said: "Governments should not determine these things and most certainly a government we cannot vote for.
"To boycott seal products should be the decision of each and every consumer and not to boycott them should be the decision of each and every consumer."
Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy, who helped steer the ban through the European Parliament, said: "This law is a victory for people power and a credit to the campaigners involved.
"The vast majority of people across the UK and Europe are horrified by the cruel clubbing to death of seals.
"This law will ensure there is no European market for these products and put an end to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seals every year."
More than 400 MEPs launched a seal ban campaign in 2006 after growing complaints from the public. That prompted a European Commission plan in 2008 for a new law.
Yesterday's vote in Strasbourg excludes the relatively small trade in seal products upon which the Inuit people depend for their livelihoods.
Robbie Marsland, UK director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has campaigned for 40 years to end seal hunting, said: "The parliament has hammered the final nail in the coffin of the sealing industry's market in the EU.
"MEPs clearly heeded the tens of thousands of e-mails, postcards and messages sent by citizens in the UK and across Europe who opposed commercial seal hunting on the grounds of its unacceptable cruelty."
The seal products will be banned from sale from 2010.
However, Norway and Canada have said they will submit complaints against the EU to the World Trade Organisation, claiming the ban is in breach of global trade rules.
The International Fur Trade Federation claimed the seal ban would not help animal welfare and disregarded international trade rules. In a statement it said seals would continue to be hunted because they had to be managed.
Chairman Andreas Lenhart said: "MEPs have rushed through bad legislation in their eagerness to garner what they think will be public appeal just before they are up for re-election."
Dion Dakins, from NuTan Furs in Newfoundland, Canada, said overpopulation of seals was becoming a major problem that would affect fish stocks.
He accused the EU of double standards: "It's a wake-up call for our industry that propaganda can rule."
The trade in sealskin is thought to be worth about 3.7 million annually.
The new law still needs the backing of EU governments, which is likely to be a formality since national envoys have already endorsed the bill.
Move to synthetic sporrans will lead to the death of a truly great tradition
SEAL sporrans are traditional – and this ban is going to mean that alternatives will have to be found. The reality is that we might end up – unfortunately – with synthetic sporrans.
More pony hair is going to have to be used and some of the sporran makers are already experimenting with rabbit skins. It is quite sad that it has come to this.
Traditionally, seal has been used for the sporran for the last 100 years. This is going to change that tradition and it really is the end of an era.
Synthetic sporrans are not traditional. The tradition has always been to have a pure wool tartan and any adornments have always been made from leather of some sort. So synthetic sporrans will look artificial.
Sporran makers will be affected because years of work has gone into using seal skin. They will probably have to experiment for a while with whatever alternatives they can think of.
Whereas day-wear sporrans are mostly made from plain leather, occasionally with a seal front as well, evening sporrans are usually made from seal skin. In the past, going back to Victorian times, dress sporrans were often made from hair.
Long goat hair was popular and then from the middle of the last century horse hair has been used for the hair sporrans. However, they are not as popular for dress sporrans now and these days it is mostly just the pipers that wear them.
Instead, for formal attire it has been the seal skin that has become very popular. It used to be the white seal skin that was very popular. That was made from the baby seal and they were banned quite a number of years ago. Since then adult seals have been used.
I could agree with the ban on using baby seals because of the way they were killed. I felt that was something that in the interest of animal welfare was a good idea. However, with the grey seal there is a cull of them from time to time and these skins are fairly plentiful. So I feel that it is sad that this is happening.
Sporrans are not something that can be done without – they are a necessity with kilts. Whereas the kilt pin is purely decorative, the sporran is something that is essential. And that means changing one of the great traditions associated with our national dress.
• Duncan Chisholm is chairman of Chisholms Highland Dress and chairman of the Kilt Makers Association.