Since the first band of fledgling hunt saboteurs confronted a hunt, many battles have been fought among the hedgerows and fields of Britain. Some have been no more than muddy skirmishes between pros and antis; others have ended in violence, and at least one of them in death. It is without doubt one of the most emotive issues facing the countryside today. As the general election approaches, the main fight has shifted to the political arena, with economics playing a significant part. Labour, if it triumphs on 1 May, will hold a free vote in the Commons on hunting with hounds to decide the future for this ancient country pursuit. A new and timely report to be released in May from the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports, a "non-political body" which none the less admits that it formed to "present to Government and to the public a more effective case in defence of those countryside sports involving a live quarry", lays out possibly the most comprehensive survey to date of the economic significance of hunting.

Collectively, the annual expenditure on countryside sports - hunting, shooting and fishing - reaches pounds 3.86bn, an early summary of the report says. The majority of that money is spent by British anglers but in 1996 the expenditure by the mounted and the foot-followers of hunting packs totalled pounds 175m.

More than 215,000 people in Great Britain hunt or follow hounds.

Some 8,215 manufacturing, supply, trade and service organisations are in part dependent on hunting, the highest proportion of all country sports. However, the overall number of people employed by country sports and allied trades - the equivalent of 60,000 full-time jobs - is a good 5,000 lower than previous estimates.

The pro-hunt pack, led by the British Field Sports Society, tends to concur with the report's statistics but has also revealed its own, taking an unidentified "average" hunt "somewhere in Britain" which it calls simply the Blankshire. "It is not one of the big rich hunts nor one of the small farmer's packs," said the BFSS, but "hunts five days a fortnight".

The Blankshire spends a total of pounds 16,295 a year, including everything down to the last horseshoe, paying for the services of huntsmen, vets, farriers and drivers.

The League Against Cruel Sports, a constant thorn in the huntsman's side, tells a different story. It says the numbers of people employed by hunting are exaggerated to fuel the pro-hunt cause, estimating that it sustains less than 1,000 full-time jobs and raises far less cash for the UK economy. It claims up to 20,000 foxes are killed by hunts each year and is keen to highlight results from a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food report in 1994 that showed less than 5 per cent of lamb deaths were down to predation and hence, while it accepted foxes can cause "serious local problems for individual farmers", it "does not consider foxes to be a significant factor in lamb mortality nationally". Neither did MAFF consider fox-hunting to be a major factor in the control of the fox population.

Country sports enthusiasts are clearly concerned about a Labour victory in May and a subsequent hunting vote. Last week they launched the Union of Country Sports Workers to protect their industry and called for direct talks with the main party leaders.

The BFSS's chief executive, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, has been doing his own bit of soapboxing, taking a roadshow around the country to secure support. So far his Election Fighting Fund has raised more than pounds 125,000. He is passionate about his cause.

"Country sports are the integral element in the British countryside which holds the rich tapestry of wildlife in Britain together," he said. "Any huntsman will tell you that with a properly conducted hunt, the fox feels only one quick snap to the back of the neck. Then, yes, it may get torn apart, but that's nature, red in tooth and claw."

The League's press officer, Kevin Saunders, blanches at such words. "We have done post mortems on some foxes which have shown that the fox doesn't get killed immediately; sometimes there's not a mark on the fox's neck whereas the animal might have been disembowelled or ripped apart," he said. "Hunts use high-stamina but slow-running hounds to prolong the chase - that's deliberate cruelty in our eyes."

So the battle rages on. And Wednesday's ground-breaking study on deer- hunting by the Cambridge University animal behaviour expert Professor Patrick Bateson, which found that an animal hunted by horse and hounds goes through a long and painful period of intense stress and exhaustion, has inflamed both sides and strained relations even further.