A BAN on hunting with dogs in England and Wales moved a step closer this week after the bill to outlaw the sport was allowed to progress to its next parliamentary stage, reports Ruth Lythe.

The Hunting Bill was given an unopposed second reading by the House of Lords, after a debate that lasted nearly nine hours.

Peers were warned by Environment Minister, Lord Whitty, that they were "in the last chance saloon."

If the Lords had voted against the bill, the government could have used the Parliament Act to force the bill through. Peers can now seek to amend the bill at committee stage later this month.

Some of the lords, including Countryside Alliance president Baroness Mallalieu, stated in the debate that they would back the compromise solution of licensed hunting. However, after MPs voted overwhelmingly last month in the Commons to pass the bill, such an outcome is considered to be unlikely as the Government has threatened to push the Hunting Bill through even if peers reject it.

But Countryside Alliance regional director for Cumbria, Tom Fell, said that he was treating the outcome of the reading with "quiet optimism."

He said he believed "common sense would prevail" and that the Lords would amend the proposal to a compromise solution, such as licensed hunting.

"I believe that a blanket ban against hunting with dogs will not go into place but a regulatory bill will go into place instead," he said.

However, he admitted that winning over many MPs when the amended bill returned to the Commons would be uphill work.

"We have done a lot of talking to MPs but really, with a lot of them, it is going to be difficult. In the eyes of some of them, ( the Hunting Bill) is an action of class revenge and that hardly seems to be the right basis of a law that is going to affect thousands of lives," he said.

Mr Fell added that he believed a ban on hunting with dogs would be the "thin end of the wedge" and that shooting and hunting would also be threatened.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Collins, who voted against the bill when it went before the Commons last month, said that although his "preference was for the status quo", he would vote for licensed hunting if a total ban was the only other option.

"Any ban on Cumbrian fell packs would be an infringement on our civil liberties and betray a strange sense of government priorities," he added.

Meanwhile, anti-hunt campaigners were jubilant that the bill was now only a whisker away from being added to the statute book.

Zoe Mendies, spokeswoman for The League of Cruel Sports, said: "We are very happy that it has gone through the House of Lords and we are just waiting for it to become law." But she added that the League would not be prepared to settle for anything less than an outright ban on hunting.