Boxing Day is traditionally the biggest meet in the hunters' calendar, and so it proved yesterday as 300,000 braved icy conditions around the country to attend 300 hunts. Their aim? With an election imminent, to back Conservative plans to scupper the Hunting Act that they detest so much. The fox is back as an electoral issue.
In the market town of Corbridge, Northumberland, the joint master of the Tynedale Hunt, Frank Houghton-Brown, was fulminating as he set out yesterday. The target of his ire, the 2005 legislation, which outlawed hunting with hounds.
Mr Houghton-Brown explained: "The ban has not saved any foxes' lives and it has wasted 700 hours of Parliament time. It is simply not working, and is causing the police a massive headache. We now hunt an artificial trail but we still kill just as many foxes as we did before the ban, by legal means, because the farmers want them killing so they don't kill the lambs."
Labour is also determined to make fox hunting an issue all over again, a new front in its recent determination to portray David Cameron's front bench as a collection of out-of-touch public schoolboys. With the voters set to go to the polls within the next six months, class politics is back with a vengeance.
Mr Cameron, the Tory leader, who himself used to hunt, made the manifesto pledge to hold an open vote on hunting in Parliament after describing the ban as "unworkable". He said it "does not make sense".
Jill Grieve, spokeswoman for the Countryside Alliance, the countryside campaign group, said hunts are reporting an increase in subscriptions in line with the "momentum for repeal". She said it had record levels of support.
Explaining the appeal of the Christmas event, she said: "It's a family thing. A lot of meets would be out at a town square or a pub or a country house. It's a sociable thing and it's a nice spectacle to see the hunt come down the High Street."
She said that while she understood welfare concerns, the killing of the fox was just a means to an end, a reason for the farmer to give the hunt access to his land, and she accused Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who recently described the sport as "barbaric", as guilty of using "emotive language".
She added: "For most that follow the hunt on horseback, they don't see the kill. Really, the thrill is getting access to land you're not usually allowed on." The Hunting Act, she claimed, "was class warfare dressed up as an animal welfare measure – [Labour was] just hitting out at the toffs."
Under the law, foxes can be shot as a form of pest control, but those taking part in a hunt yesterday were not permitted to chase a fox. Instead, they created a false trail with a dead fox.
Mr Benn yesterday launched an online petition calling on the public to support the ban and prove to the Tories and pro-hunt groups that they are in the minority. The online campaign is supported by Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart – who has been tipped for a knighthood in the New Year's Honours list – along with television comedy favourite Tony Robinson.
The Countryside Alliance said research showed that 57 per cent of the public believe the Hunting Act is a failure. There have been nine prosecutions and three convictions since the ban was brought in.