A NEW study undertaken to prove that "fox population management is working perfectly" has reignited the hunting debate in Cumbria.

The research by academics at Bristol University found that the number of foxes in the UK had remained stable over the past 25 years at about 250,000.

The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance has taken the findings to prove that the present system of "using hunts, shoots and other legal methods to manage foxes is working perfectly."

Alliance spokesman Darren Hughes said of the research: "One part of the management of the fox population has been the creation and conservation of natural habitats by hunts, which has been carried out for hundreds of years and is recognised by a number of reputable research establishments as having far reaching biodiversity benefits."

But Lake District co-ordinator for The League Against Cruel Sports, Elaine Milburn, spoke out against the Alliance's view that fox hunting was a means of conservation, calling the activity "cruel and unnecessary."

She said: "It has nothing at all to do with conservation, it is simply an excuse for hunters to carry on.

"During the foot-and-mouth crisis when there was no hunting, there was no increase in the number of foxes. Foxes do control their own numbers."

She added: "Hunters say that it is about helping the farmer with pest control but they are encouraging foxes to breed for hunting. It is total hypocrisy, the only reason why people go hunting is because they enjoy it."

However, the research findings were taken by members of the Lake District hunting community as welcome evidence that hunting foxes was a necessary activity.

Joint Hunt Master of Coniston Fox Hounds, Ernie Shepherd, said: "We do everything we can to avoid being cruel. If fox hunting was banned, then foxes would be wiped out by trappers and poachers."

Steve Woodhall, Northern region representative of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said that although he had not seen the report himself, from his own knowledge the numbers of foxes in the Lake District "had not changed much".

He said: "People often assume that because they can't see a certain type of animal, they are not about. But that isn't the case at all. If fox hunting was stopped and other methods of animal control were stopped, it could have a detrimental affect on the countryside as a whole."