A-listers spend up to £100,000 for ostrich-skin bags. But a new investigation reveals the terrible suffering behind them
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Walk into a branch of one of Europe’s top fashion houses and you may find some of the world’s wealthiest women covetously running their immaculately manicured fingers over handbags made of bumpy leather.
Those bumps are the hallmark of ostrich skin – a sign to the world that the owner is not sporting any old animal hide but one that is rare, exotic and oh-so-expensive.
Ostrich bags are sold by the likes of Prada, Mulberry, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, and the most sought-after can cost up to £100,000
Victoria Beckham’s personal Hermès Birkin collection, estimated to be 100-strong and worth a collective £1.5million, would not be complete without them.
Marks & Spencer model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is a fan of Mulberry’s ostrich skin bag in tan, while Jerry Hall, actresses Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley and pop star Rihanna have all been pictured touting the distinctive handbags. Catherine Zeta-Jones has been photographed with two orange versions – one in each hand.
However, those highly-prized bumps are actually the follicles from which the ostrich’s beautiful feathers are ripped out, often while they are conscious.
As for how the birds are reared and killed . . . well, it seems that on this subject, it is humans who are keen to bury their heads in the sand.
A recent investigation by the campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) saw researchers go undercover at the two largest ostrich slaughter companies in the world, including the exclusive supplier of ostrich skins for Hermès Birkins.
It was the first major research into a highly secretive trade.
The South African firms account for 85 per cent of the world’s ostrich industry, with about 300,000 birds killed per year for their leather, feathers and meat.
Their global dominance is down to intensive factory farming processes, which involve cruelty and horror a world away from the glamour of the shops in which the bags are sold.
Investigators saw ostriches being pulled by their wings into a stunning pen. As they were yanked into place, some would slip and fall to the ground on their bellies.
An electric current was then passed through their heads via metal tongs to stun them, before they were hoisted upside down and had their feet shackled and their throats slit.
The ostriches next in line could clearly see the slaughter, in contravention of South African and international guidelines.
Over three weeks, the researchers also filmed workers striking ostriches in the face during transport and just before slaughter.
One of them, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Mail: ‘First, we saw the ostriches in the wild. I saw three females and a male walking through the Bush, eating flowers, and I was mesmerised by them.
‘They are majestic animals who, in nature, would spend up to three years with their parents.
‘The dads will take the night shift looking after the eggs in the dark – because they’re black they have perfect camouflage – and the females sit on them in the day because they have a brown camouflage feather pattern. It was really moving to see how familial they are. It makes it that much more of a contrast when you know that on these breeding farms, they take eggs from parents so the babies never meet their parents.’
On the farms, the eggs are placed in giant incubators resembling walk-in fridges. When they hatch, the chicks are stored in crates and, after a few days, put in a ‘creche’ – actually a series of concrete pens.
Finally, these inquisitive birds are moved out to ‘feedlots’ – barren fields with no vegetation.
They are unable to exhibit their natural behaviour (in the wild, they can run at 40mph and cover up to 20 miles a day). Instead, birds were seen biting the air repetitively and chewing at the wire fencing.
Wild ostriches can live well into their 40s, but those farmed for their leather are killed just after their first birthday. The factories strike a balance between the best age for harvesting their meat and the best time for taking their skins.
When just six or seven months old, the birds are hooded, their feathers ripped out and their wing plumes clipped, apparently so that their feathers regrow uniformly by the time they are slaughtered (feathers that are the same size and shape are easier to sell for use in costumes and accessories).
A second plucking happens just before they are killed.
Live plucking is explicitly prohibited by both the South African Ostrich Business Chamber and the World Ostrich Association, but Peta’s researchers were told that it was routine.
The investigator said: ‘I imagine the feathers are not as damaged if they are plucked before slaughter and transport.’
The team also witnessed the ostriches’ incredibly bloody deaths.
‘After they were shackled, they had their throats cut and we were told that because they have such long necks, that doesn’t induce enough blood loss, so they also stab them in the heart – it’s called a thoracic stick – and then another gush of blood comes out of their chests,’ said one investigator.
After watching the undercover campaigners’ footage, Lesley J. Rogers, emeritus professor of neuroscience and animal behaviour at the University of New England in Australia, said: ‘The birds are showing obvious stress, as is clear from their heightened vigilance, heads raised and visual scanning, and by their open-mouth breathing.’
Last year, South Africa’s equivalent of the RSPCA, brought charges against several ostrich hatcheries in the Western Cape after it found that in the process of having their toenails clipped, some ostrich chicks’ toes were amputated.
The clipping is to stop the birds tearing each other’s skin while they are confined – the leather must be kept pristine. However, the nail-clipping machine was also routinely chopping off parts of their feet.
Six million people have already watched Peta’s footage on its website () and more than 100,000 have written to Hermès and Prada asking them to stop using the skins in the wake of these revelations.
However, even this distressing evidence is unlikely to assuage some fashion-watchers’ lust for leather, or stop them clamouring to get on to the waiting list for an ostrich Birkin.
For years, it has seemed that anyone who is anyone has been regularly pictured toting a piece of ostrich arm-candy.
Oprah Winfrey has sported a Louis Vuitton bag with ostrich detailing. The company’s offerings range from a £670 Zippy coin purse (available in fig blue, chilli red or fuchsia) to a Christopher PM black ostrich leather backpack costing £15,300.
Rihanna has been spotted with one of Prada’s ostrich handbags dangling from her arm.
The Italian fashion house’s most expensive ostrich product is a £4,970 Inside bag, with double ostrich leather handle. It is available in green, sand, pineapple yellow, tamaris pink, cloudy grey and caramel.
Hermès does not publish its prices; no information about the Birkin is available on its website and customers who phone up for details are told they must come into the store just to find out what is in stock.
However, a new Birkin ranges in price from £5,000 to £100,000, depending on the size, skin, colour and customisation (Victoria Beckham’s pink ostrich specimen, which she previously paired with her pink Roland Mouret ‘Moon’ cocktail dress, is said to be at the very top of this range).
The waiting list for a custom-ordered bag can be as long as 18 months, sometimes years for the exotic ostrich, crocodile or lizard ones.
Even second-hand ostrich Birkins are hot properties; some are being offered on eBay for more than £25,000. Ostrich leather is also used in everything from belts (£680 for one by Gucci at net-a-porter.com) to jewellery (£330 for a fuchsia Prada bracelet) and men’s shoes (£500 for an Italian-made Stemar pair of sandals at Selfridges).
It has even been used to encase a top-of-the-range mobile phone (£5,700 for a Vertu covered in cognac ostrich-skin, also from Selfridges).
The birds’ feathers are turned into boas and costumes for the Moulin Rouge in Paris and Brazil’s Rio Carnival.
You can buy an Alice + Olivia ostrich feather-trimmed dress at Harrods for £945 or an extending ostrich feather duster at John Lewis for £35.
One bird’s skin, which usually measures about 15 square feet, is enough to make one or two Birkins, and the bird’s leather can account for 80 per cent of its value, depending on the trends that year (the cost fluctuates according to fashion).
The cruelty that is central to the making of Hermès’ signature bag is not news to British actress and singer Jane Birkin.
She gave her name to the design she inspired in 1981 after spilling the contents of her hand luggage on the floor while sitting next to the then-chief executive of the French luxury goods firm during a flight from Paris to London.
Last year, she said she had asked Hermès to ‘debaptise the Birkin Croco until better practices in line with international norms can be put in place’.
Her move followed revelations by Peta that alligators and crocodiles at a factory connected to Hermès, which makes crocodile skin handbags, were packed into barren concrete pits for months or even years before workers crudely hacked into the necks of some and tried to scramble their brains with metal rods.
Hermès later said that its muse was ‘satisfied’ by the measures it had taken in response to her requests.
Birkin has not commented on Peta’s ostrich exposé, but campaigners hope that it will mark a turning point in the attitudes of shoppers.
Ingrid Newkirk, the managing director of Peta, said: ‘Smart, sensitive and curious young ostriches are treated like victims in a horror film simply because someone wants a bumpy Birkin bag or a pockmarked Prada purse.
‘Peta urges shoppers to choose from the many high-end, ultra-fashionable and animal-friendly vegan accessories on the market.’
A statement from Hermès did not deny that one of the farms shown in the footage is the exclusive supplier of ostrich skins for its Birkin bags. However, it said it does not own the farms and ‘operates at a secondary level within this industry’.
The statement continued: ‘Hermès deplores the relentless attacks by Peta, aiming to harm its reputation through a dishonest representation of the facts and a complete ignorance of the deep ethical commitment of Hermès to the fight against animal cruelty, as well as any other welfare concerns.’
Louis Vuitton did not answer the Mail’s enquiries and a spokeswoman for Prada declined to comment.
Whether Peta’s latest footage will diminish demand for that coveted bumpy leather fashion accessory remains to be seen.
In the meantime, ostriches will continue to be the real fashion victims.