A traditional day for the foxhunters: animal rights protests and an uncertain future

For Judy Gilbert, like many country people, yesterday was a day of tradition and ritual. Clad in her green wax jacket and accompanied by her seven-year-old grandson and mother-in-law, 87, she arrived early in the picturesque square in the small Buckinghamshire town of Winslow for the Boxing Day meeting of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase Hunt.

It was a tradition shared across Britain with an estimated 250,000 people at nearly 300 similar hunts.

Looking at the men and women high on their majestic horses with the brass band playing carols, Mrs Gilbert said: "I don't thinkthis will last much longer. And we shall be very pleased. It's barbaric.''

With that, adjusting her bright purple hat at a rakish angle, she brandished her League Against Cruel Sports placard at the throng.

But according to the Countryside Alliance's Campaign for Hunting, Boxing Day hunts across the country yesterday were different. For the first time in several years, there was some hope for them to cling to. On 3 December the Government unveiled proposals which envisaged a future for hunting, albeit in a highly regulated fashion. Hunts which can justify their existence for pest-control purposes will continue to meet. Unless the anti-hunting lobby of Labour MPs achieves a complete ban, the question of whether hunts such as the Bicester survive will depend on the details of the regulatory framework: the new battleground between the hunting community and its adversaries.

Baroness Mallalieu, the Labour peer and president of the Alliance, was in Winslow to show support. "This hunt is bound to continue because it serves a vital function for farmers by controlling foxes, of which there has been an explosion around here since the foot-and-mouth epidemic," she said. Mrs Gilbert felt otherwise. "I don't think this hunt will be able to justify its existence. It must be banned under the new regulations,'' she said.

Yesterday's meetings, on the biggest day in the hunting calendar, attracted about 250,000 hunt supporters, heavily outnumbering demonstrators, according to the Campaign.

In Winslow, Mrs Gilbert's small group kept up their ritual by waving placards and the hunters flourished their riding crops. Sometime after 11am the hunt moved off, to a sprinkle of applause from the crowd. Mrs Gilbert packed up and left for home in pursuit of some cold turkey ("make sure you say it's organic'') and the hunt charged up and down in pursuit of the fox.

Among those following the hunt were farmer Henry Hunt and his wife Phyllis, who had come in support of their grand-daughter Alice, 17, riding with what is known as the "field'' of riders behind the hounds. He said: "I really don't think hunting should be banned, it's not really about killing foxes. It's a good day out for us.''

But not for the two foxes the hounds caught and killed.

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