MANY Lakeland hunt supporters fearedthis season would be the last following Prime Minister Tony Blair'spromise last July that fox hunting would be banned before the nextelection.

The bill is being presented in parliament today,beginning a process which is expected to be complete before the nextelection is called.

With the uncertainty surrounding thecenturies-old sport set to drag on, reporter Victoria Clark spent a daywith the Coniston Foxhounds, to watch a Lake District fell pack inaction.

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FOR Coniston huntsman Michael Nicholson,hunting at its simplest is a unique and effective form of pest control -the fox is a predator and needs to be checked before lambing starts in thespring.

"My job is to kill foxes in the best way Iknow.

It's pest control, not a sport," said Michael, who lastseason accounted for 89 foxes.

The fifth generation of hisfamily to earn a living as a huntsman, he stands to lose his job and hisfamily home if hunting is banned.

Understandably, perhaps,Michael is not willing to give up his livelihood without astruggle.

"We haven't even started fighting yet," hewarned.

While the public perception might be of toffs in redcoats leading the hunt by horseback, hunting in the mountainous terrain ofthe Lake District is carried out on foot with no horsesinvolved.

As the huntsman prepared to get the hunt going, thefollowers - mainly local, but also from Newcastle, York, Harrogate andGloucestershire - rushed to secure a prime position to watch the houndsset off.

My guide for the day was 72-year-old fieldmasterErnie Shepherd, who has been hunting since he was 15.

Whilemost of the others headed off to a rocky outcrop known as the look-out,Ernie, and his wife Wendy, led me to an alternative vantage point where wepaused to watch the hounds racing off across the hillside in search of ascent.

Other alternatives - poisoning, trapping or snaring -often involve long and painful deaths, and are more indiscriminate in whatgets killed.

Ernie agrees: "At the moment it's controlled butas soon as we aren't here, there will be farmers out with rifles lampingat night, and whole families of foxes will be wiped out."

Forthe full story, check The WestmorlandGazette.