FOX hunting can be counter-productive and actually increase numbers of the animals, according to a new report.

A study commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland found that fox numbers have gone down over the past 20 years, even with the ban on hunting with a pack of hounds being introduced in 2002.

The law does allow the use of dogs to flush out a fox to be shot but Professor Stephen Harris, of Bristol University, said that killing foxes at all can actually increase their number, "especially when a dominant animal is killed ... as more foxes move in to compete for the vacant space".

Published to coincide with the start of the hunting season, the report also claims that foxes can each be worth an average of £500 per annum to farmers, as they keep rabbit numbers down.

But its conclusions are being challenged by NFU Scotland as betraying an ignorance of modern farming.

The study showed that in the mid-1990s there were an estimated 23,000 adult foxes in Scotland, producing around 41,000 cubs each year. But data collected showed that the fox population in the UK as a whole declined by 29 per cent between 1995 and 2014.

It said: “There is no convincing evidence that ‘pest control’ is having a significant effect on fox numbers in Scotland or elsewhere in Britain, the ban on hunting with dogs has not led to an increase in fox numbers, and using packs of hounds to drive foxes out of cover to waiting guns can have a significant disruptive effect on the behaviour of foxes and leads to higher, not lower, fox numbers in the spring.”

The report also questioned whether foxes should be categorised as pests at all.

Mr Harris said: "The scientific evidence is clear: any losses of lambs to foxes are minor compared to other forms of mortality and studies in Scotland have shown that fox numbers are determined by changes in the habitat, not 'pest control'.

"Improvements in husbandry would have a much greater benefit in reducing lamb losses than hunting foxes."

Robbie Marsland, director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: “This independent report shows that killing foxes, regardless of the method used, is futile and even counter productive.

“Those that insist upon their ‘right’ to shoot foxes or urge on a pack of hounds to chase and kill a wild animal need to face facts, there is no reason to hunt foxes, other than for their own ‘entertainment’.

"The excuses used by the pro-hunt lobby to justify this cruel so-called sport are based entirely on myths and vested interests.”

But NFU Scotland’s Vice President Andrew McCornick, a beef and sheep farmer from Dumfries and Galloway said: “NFU Scotland is concerned that the author of this report is clearly unfamiliar with the realities of Scottish sheep farming, the high standards set by our farmers and the problem of fox predation.

"We would welcome him onto Scottish farms to view the essential role that fox control plays in protecting our sheep stocks.

“On the hill, the life of every lamb counts and the ability to humanely control foxes that take lambs is essential when margins are wafer thin."

He said NFU Scotland totally rejected the view of those who funded this report that Scottish legislation should be changed to mean that “no wild mammals can ever be hunted again under any circumstances”.

He said "This extreme view is detached from reality. The inability to legally control vermin and predators would be damaging for Scotland’s rural economy and the environment.”

Scottish Countryside Alliance director Jamie Stewart added: "This report has been commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports from an academic who has created many such documents for them over the years, and contains no new research.

"The fact remains that governments from both sides of the border accept that farmers should be able to control fox populations and a number of methods including shooting and snaring remain legal.

"Professor Harris is flying in the face of all common sense when he suggests that foxes do not predate livestock.

"We believe that farmers and landowners should have the best options for wildlife management."