IT sparked one of the biggest political controversies in years and finally ended in defeat for supporters of foxhunting.

But both sides in the debate could be facing a rematch following proposals to relax the hunting ban, which was approved despite a vociferous campaign. The law allows farmers to shoot foxes using no more than two dogs to flush them out of their lairs.

Under the new proposals being considered by ministers, landowners in England and Wales would be legally entitled to use a pack of hounds. It follows pressure from the Federation of Welsh Farmers’ Packs, which says the number of lambs being killed by foxes has increased.

But critics claim it could pave the way for a full-scale repeal of the Hunting Act, which came into force in 2005. Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “This is nothing but an attempt at repeal by the back door.

“While foxes may take lambs in certain circumstances, lamb by no means makes up the majority of their diet and we fundamentally question the need to take foxes in this way.

“Yet again foxes are the fall animal, and hunting them the easy solution. Any attempt to weaken the Hunting Act will be resisted by both us and the majority of the public, who don’t want a return to hunting after some 80 years of campaigning.”

But the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance is backing the proposal. Tim Bonner, director of campaigns, said: “The Alliance understands the urgent need for the only effective method of fox control in many upland areas to be reinstated and so supports calls for the removal of the two-dog limit.”

The New Forest Animal Protection Group said the proposal was unlikely to have much impact in the Forest and other non-lambing areas. But it vowed to go into battle again if full-scale foxhunting ever looked like returning to the district. Julian Lewis, Tory MP for New Forest East, said: “I voted against the ban and if the issue comes up again I’ll vote to repeal it. But I’m not convinced that using indirect means – if this is what this is – is the best way to approach the matter.”

The Masters of Foxhounds Association said: “The proposal would not even start to address the many unjustified restrictions imposed by the Hunting Act and our position remains that the Act should be repealed in full.”

The National Farmers’ Union declined to comment, saying it preferred to remain neutral. Following the ban, groups such as the New Forest Hounds switched to trail hunting, with dogs following an artificial scent.