Stormont MLAs are set to debate whether to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland.
The region remains the only part of the UK where hunting wild mammals with dogs is still permitted.
A private members’ bill brought by Alliance MLA John Blair aims to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
However the Countryside Alliance has urged MLAs to vote against the bill, describing it as “very clumsily cobbled together with absolutely no regard or thought for its wider implication”.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots indicated he would not be supporting the bill.
Mr Poots contended foxes are a threat to some ground-nesting birds such as red grouse and hen harriers.
“If we’re serious about biodiversity, then we need to have management tools and we need to be very cautious about removing management tools,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’m not sure it is a particularly well written bill so I can’t support it on that basis. Personally I don’t hunt, I don’t particularly like hunting but I can’t support this particular bill because I think that it isn’t well thought through. It might be well meaning but not well thought through and has damaging consequences if it came into force.”
Hunting with dogs has been banned in England, Scotland, and Wales since the early 2000s.
The bill will be open for debate on the floor of the Assembly on Monday after gaining significant support during a public consultation with nearly 80% of the 18,000 respondents in favour of a ban.
It is understood to be the largest consultation response in Stormont’s history.
The bill has been backed by the Northern Ireland animal welfare charity, the USPCA.
Mr Blair said: “Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs, despite widespread public support to ban the practice.
“It is my intention in bringing forward my Private Member’s Bill, to reform legislation on hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland, and bring our legislation in line with that in England, Scotland and Wales where the practice has been illegal for close to 20 years.”
Chief executive Brendan Mullan said the charity has been “greatly encouraged” by the momentum around this bill.
“The appetite of the public to end this cruel practice which causes unthinkable pain and suffering for innocent wild animals,” he said.
“It must be recognised that, now, with the bill being presented to the Assembly, we are coming to a pivotal juncture for animal welfare here in Northern Ireland, which will set the tone for our future.
“There is a real opportunity here for the Assembly to put on record their commitment to enhancing animal welfare standards, and specifically on this occasion, introducing legislation which has been in place in other regions for nearly 20 years.
“The arguments against banning hunting wild mammals with dogs are based on tradition and pest control however it is categorically clear that the cruelty involved in this activity far outweighs any supposed benefit.
“Moreover, the rationalisation regarding pest control is tenuous at best as there is no evidence of this being the case.
“In England for example, the ban has been in place for quite some time and an inquiry taken forward at Westminster has stated that the contribution of fox hunting is almost insignificant in terms of managing the fox population as a whole.”
Mr Mullan added: “This issue has been a key focus of the USPCA for a number of years, with our goal for the introduction of a ban outlined in our Animal Welfare Manifesto ‘Addressing the Deficit’.
“Members of the public have made their views on this barbaric ‘sport’ very clear, and we look forward to the Assembly’s response which we hope will consign it to the pages of history for Northern Ireland. Killing defenceless wild mammals with dogs is sadistic and cruel and has no place in a compassionate society.”
But Gary McCartney, director of Countryside Alliance Ireland, which opposes the bill, contended that it could “potentially criminalise every dog owner in Northern Ireland” and “also represents an attack on the rural way of life”.
“Anyone whose dog chases a rabbit or squirrel, for example, whilst they are simply out for a walk in the park, partaking in country pursuits, checking their livestock or engaged in any other activity will be committing a criminal offence,” he said.
“We are continuing to urge MLAs to oppose this bill.”