In village squares, pub car parks and fields all over the country, they met this morning, with their horses, their hounds, their gleaming tunics and, in many cases, their breath already alive with whisky vapour.
An estimated 250,000 people turned out for Britain’s traditional Boxing Day hunts, which regularly produce among the most bucolic images of the year, as the horses and their riders set out through chocolate-box villages and over the rolling countryside.
But they are occasions that for eight years been effectively illegal, and they come amid news that the Government is delaying its plans for a vote on the highly emotive issue of fox hunting.
The Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, admitted that the Government did not currently have the necessary parliamentary majority to overturn a ban on the practice, which was outlawed in 2005 under Labour. “It makes sense to bring something forward if you think there’s a chance of there being a parliamentary majority and at the moment there doesn’t appear to be one,” he told the BBC’s World at One programme.
“There is precious little point if you think you are not going to win the votes, or that Parliament isn’t going to change the law.”
His comments followed those made by the Tory Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, a keen supporter of so-called “blood sports”, who said it would be highly unlikely the promised free vote would take place before the end of 2013.
“It is our clear intention to have a free vote but we need to choose an appropriate moment.”
Most of the gatherings practise trail-hunting, where huntsmen follow a trail laid with a rag steeped in a fox-based scent, but it is common for the hounds to pick up the scent of a real live fox and follow that instead, the legality of which is complex and highly contested.
In Chipping Norton, around 6,000 people gathered in the town centre to greet the horses and hounds of the Heythrop Hunt, which was recently the subject of a £327,000 private prosecution by the RSPCA. Two members of the Heythrop – which David Cameron has ridden with in the past – admitted unlawfully hunting with dogs on four occasions and were fined. But today large numbers of spectators turned out in a show of support which pleased pro-hunting lobbyists. Sir Barney White-Spunner, executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said: ‘Today has been an extraordinary display of support for hunting right the way across the country. Those hundreds and thousands of people have sent a clear message to the Government.
“They understand the difficulties of coalition government and the serious issues facing the nation, but this law is flawed and has failed.”
Supporters of the ban say the majority of Britons want it to stay, including most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and some Conservatives. Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the organisation was spending £1m on recruiting investigators with the aim of catching people hunting illegally.
The shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh added: “Most people back Labour’s ban on hunting wild animals with dogs and accept there is no place for animal cruelty in a civilised society.”