In a field near the village of Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire, they are enacting a Boxing Day tradition: the huntsmen are mounted, the riders assembled and the hounds excited. Everyone is ready for the off and the thrill of the chase across glorious, if overcast, winter countryside.
To any observer, this looks and sounds like hunting, 10 months after the Hunting Act, which banned hunting with dogs, came into force. It is likely that, as on previous occasions, scores of foxes will be tracked down and killed.
The one big difference, for this hunt at least, is that the distinctive red coats have been abandoned in favour of black. "They thought it might be a good idea to be a little less obvious than in the past," said Tim Bonner, the Countryside Alliance spokesman, "but otherwise, it's business as usual."
For the 50 or so riders out with the Brent Pelham, one of more than 250 meets yesterday, the biggest day in the hunting year, about the only thing they cannot do is let a pack of hounds chase a fox to its death. But, as Mr Bonner pointed out: "If the hunt wanted to break the law out there in the middle of the countryside, there is nothing to stop it." He stressed, however, that this hunt intended to remain within the law.
That does not stop hunts exploiting the Act's inconsistencies. These include the fact that hounds and riders can follow an artificially laid trail - known as drag or trail hunting - while foxes can be flushed from cover by no more than two hounds. If the foxes appear to be bothering game birds and go to earth, they can be dug out by terrier-men and their dogs and shot as a means of pest control. Which is precisely what happened eventually to the only fox found during several hours of hunting at Brent Pelham yesterday. The shot foxes can then be given to the hounds, which are raised on a diet of raw meat.
That the two things happen at the same time is, say hunt supporters, entirely within the law. Some hunts are now using birds of prey to find and kill foxes.
Other oddities include the fact that rabbits and squirrels can be hunted by packs, but hares can not. The sole prosecution has been against a man in Lancashire accused of poaching rabbits.
As was evident around Brent Pelham, it would require lots of police officers to follow the hunt across muddy fields and through copse and spinney for several hours in order to enforce the law. In practice, this could only be done by taking to horses themselves or using quad bikes, like the terrier-men.
Even then, the police can only enter private land if they have evidence that the law is being broken; it is a loophole which the Association of Chief Police Officers says must be closed in order for them to enforce the law effectively.
This was not happening at Brent Pelham yesterday; the only members of the Hertfordshire constabulary in evidence were helping with the traffic control where the hunt gathered.
Anti-hunting groups have promised to do the work of the police by gathering evidence of breaches - which they claimed had occurred in more than 40 per cent of the country's hunts.
Repeal of the Act remains the fervent hope of hunt supporters. However, Tim Vesty, a joint master of the Brent Pelham hunt, admitted that the chance of an immediate change in the law was low, even if the Conservatives are returned to power. Speaking before setting off, he said: "I don't think it is very high up David Cameron's list of priorities."
But that does not appear to have lessened the determination of the hunting fraternity: In a short speech from horseback to the assembled throng, Mr Vesty condemned the Act, saying it was based on "prejudice and malice".
If anything, the ban has solidified and increased support for hunting. The alliance estimated that at least a quarter of a million people were out supporting hunts yesterday, with meetings such as the famous and fashionable Beaufort in Gloucestershire - which members of the Royal Family often attend - attracting more than 4,000 followers and almost 300 riders, up on last year.
Among the larger than normal crowd which turned out at Brent Pelham to cheer the hunt on its way was Jane Garner, 42, a self-confessed "townie" whose views have changed since she moved from south London 18 months ago: "If you had asked me then, I would have said they were all just a bunch of hooray henrys. Now I believe there is a lot of ill-educated thinking about hunting. It is essential both economically and socially."
What a difference a ban makes
* Months since Hunting Act came into effect: 10
* Number of convictions for hunting foxes with hounds: O
* Hunts which met on Boxing Day last year: 250
* Hunts which met on Boxing Day this year: 250
* Total number of hunts: 350, including 184 packs which hunted foxes and 100 which hunted hares
* Biggest hunt attendance on Boxing Day this year: Beaufort Hunt in Gloucestershire: 288 riders; 4,000 supporters
* Total Boxing Day attendance by hunt members and supporters last year: 250,000
* Total attendance yesterday: 250,000
* Total number of hunts closed since ban: 0
* Percentage of hunts said to have broken law: 40
* Percentage of hunts with increased membership since ban: 40 per cent
* Total hunt income before the ban: £14.9m
* Number of full-time equivalent jobs dependent on hunting: 6,000-8,000
* Number of jobs lost since ban: Less than a dozenReuse content