FOX hunting “loopholes” are to close as the Scottish Government bids to lead the UK on animal welfare.

A new bill limiting the number of dogs that can be used to flush out a fox will be introduced to the Scottish Parliament.

Just two will be permitted, but a licensing scheme allowing exceptions could be set up to cover instances of “pest control”.

The move follows a review by Lord Bonomy which found as many as 800 foxes are killed in hunts each year.

One in five are said to be killed by packs of dogs – in contravention of current laws.

Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon said the SNP administration plans to “introduce measures that go beyond the rest of the UK in terms of protecting the welfare of our wild animals”.

But opponents said it was time to call off hunts for good.

Labour’s Colin Smyth MSP: “It’s time for them to get on with consigning the practise of fox hunting to the history books once and for all, and bring forward legislation that ensures 2018 will be remembered as the last ever Boxing Day hunt.”

And Alison Johnstone of the Greens said: “Many people believe fox-hunting was banned in Scotland more than a decade ago. The truth is that legislation was more loophole than ban, and we now know at least some of those loopholes will be closed.

“When we see the Scottish Government’s final proposals I am sure the Greens will push them to go further, and I would hope to get parliament’s support for the kind of comprehensive ban on fox-hunting that the public expect.”

Fox hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland in 2002, with an exemption for using dogs to flush out foxes for pest control or protecting livestock or ground-nesting birds.

Mounted hunts in Scotland have since offered farmers, landowners and estate managers a pest control service, but a 2016 review by Lord Bonomy found there were “grounds to suspect” fox hunting takes place illegally.

He recommended independent monitors to police hunts.

In a statement to parliament, Gougeon said this, as well as a code of practice, will be introduced as soon as possible.

She said: “The welfare of animals in Scotland, whether domestic, farmed, or wild, is one of this government’s highest priorities.”

She went on: “We’re going to strengthen our current legislation and plan to introduce measures that go beyond the rest of the UK in terms of protecting the welfare of our wild mammals.”

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said two hounds will “not work”, adding that “reducing the ability to control foxes in forestry will be a disaster for wildlife and farm stock”.