Hunting and shooting play an important role in conserving rural habitats in Britain, according to new research published on Wednesday.
The government's hunting bill would see hunts being strictly licensed
A three-year-study carried out by a team from the University of Kent in Canterbury found landowners planted and maintained more woodland and hedgerows if they were involved in field sports.
The research found those who both hunted and ran game-bird shoots conserved the most woodland cover.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Nature, have been seized upon by the Countryside Alliance (CA).
The organisation said the research calls into question government plans to ban most hunts.
Simon Hart, director of the CA's campaign for hunting, said: "This research supports what land managers have always argued - that country sports are beneficial to landscapes, wildlife and biodiversity."
Voluntary habitat management appears to be important for biodiversity conservation in Britain
The researchers, led by Nigel Leader-Williams, said in Britain, where farmland covered 76% of the country, woodland and hedgerows were important habitats and helped link agricultural landscapes.
But over the past 50 years, both habitat types had declined considerably.
They found since woodland and hedgerows gave essential cover for foxes and game birds, landowners interested in hunting and shooting were more likely to maintain them.
Rural habitats were most likely to be found where hunting and shooting were permitted, even though all landowners are allowed to apply for conservation subsidies.
The scientists wrote: "We found that landowners participating in field sports maintained woodland and planted more new woodland and hedgerows that those who did not, despite the equal availability of subsidies.
"Therefore, voluntary habitat management appears to be important for biodiversity conservation in Britain."
Under the proposed hunting bill, fox hunts would be strictly licensed with hunts only allowed if they passed a test showing they were justified in order to control fox numbers.
The researchers said it was important the conservation role of landowners be taken into account when deciding whether to allow fox hunting.