LANDOWNERS INVOLVED in foxhunting and shooting preserve ten times more woodland on their farms than those not involved in field sports, according to a study published last week.
The debate on the future of field sports has neglected how much they can encourage landowners to manage habitat for wildlife, researchers found.
The authors of the study said that a test of the "utility" of field sports in the Government's Hunting Bill focused on whether hunting was needed for population control or pest control.
This was accompanied by a test to ensure that the method of pest control caused least suffering.
However, an equally valid test of utility, which field sports passed with flying colours, was encouraging nature conservation.
Voluntary habitat management for field sports played a large part in the conservation of biological diversity, the study published in the journal Nature found. It said that more public money would be needed to replace it if either sport were banned.
The independent study by the University of Kent's Durrell Institute of conservation and ecology used aerial photographs to survey sites in central England, where there are few statutory protected areas. Researchers also interviewed landowners.
They found that landowners involved in both hunting and shooting conserved most woodland cover: about 7.2 per cent of their farm area, compared with only 0.6 per cent among landowners involved in neither activity.
Professor Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues from Kent found that all landowners involved in hunting and shooting had planted new woodland, but only 37.5 per cent of those not involved in either activity bothered to do so.
There was no difference in the amount of hedges planted and maintained by farmers and landowners who hunted and maintained shoots and those who did not.
The researchers said that the amount of ancient woodland, rich in species, had been in decline for 50 years, so the extra woodland represented a conservation gain. Landowners who hosted field sports were less likely to rely only on farming income. However, wealth alone was not generally sufficient to encourage landowners to undertake new planting without the positive incentive of field sports participation.
Prof Nigel Leader-Williams said: "Policies of voluntary conservation, based on positive incentives, are widely adopted in the Amazon and the African savannas. But they tend to be ignored in the Home Counties."
The Countryside Alliance said the study called into doubt the wisdom of the Government "inexplicably" excluding all conservation and wildlife management criteria from the proposed utility test, which forms the basis of the new licensing system in its Hunting Bill.
Simon Hart, the director of the Alliance's Campaign For Hunting, said: "This research supports what land managers have always argued - that country sports are beneficial to landscapes, wildlife and biodiversity. Now it is time for the Government to accept that hunting is about far more than its narrow definition of pest control."
Meanwhile, in a separate study, tests conducted for the parliamentary Middle Way hunting group show that foxes will suffer more when the practice is banned, raising pressure on the Government to look again at the issue. Researchers reconstructed the death of 2,000 foxes, and checked the effect of shooting.
A further study, conducted on behalf of Animal Welfare groups, due to be published by the end of this week will indicate that fox hunting has a positive effect not only on the prey and other wildlife as well. The reports findings will show that the banning of hunting will have an adverse effect on the natural food chain.
Meanwhile, the Hunting Bill itself could be squeezed out of the current Parliamentary session.
John Reid, the Leader of the Commons, failed to give an assurance that the Government would find time to bring its Hunting Bill back to the floor of the House in time for it to reach the Statute Book this session.
Mr Reid stressed the "crowded" parliamentary timetable, when asked last month as to when the Bill might return for its next consideration by MPs. The Bill as it stands would allow fox hunting to continue under strict conditions, but outlaw hare coursing and stag hunting.
Mr Reid said: "We will bring it to Parliament in due course. I think that we will give it the seriousness it deserves.
"We have got a pretty crowded programme, which has become even more crowded because we have responded to understandable demands that we report regularly on the position in Iraq."
The Bill was not listed by Mr Reid when he announced the Commons business for the two weeks up to the recent Whitsun recess.
Under new Commons rules, the Bill can survive into the next session of Parliament in the autumn if not approved by July. However, the Government seem to be in no hurry to bring the Bill forward for debate and possibly risk further divisions within their MPs ranks.