Opponents claim hare-coursing is inhumane
The scene is a vast, flat field, grass-covered and overhung with a fine, white early-morning mist.
Two lines of marshalls are in position, evenly-spaced, across the length of the course. A horseman rides between them, red-coated, with helmet and whip. He's called The Judge.
At one end of the field a pair of sleek-muscled greyhounds, keen-eyed and breathing heavily, struggle to escape their handler's leash.
Crowds line each side of the course, eyes straining towards a distant meadow.
And then a shout goes up.
From the meadow, runs a hare, squat, powerful and fast, rushing between the lines of marshalls, towards the far edge of the course and safety.
It hurtles past the greyhounds, whose handler fights to control them, until with the hare about eighty yards clear, he lets slip the dogs, which leap into the chase.
This is Within's Field, near the village of Great Altcar in the West Lancashire countryside north of Liverpool. It's the beginning of the 156th meeting to contest the Waterloo Cup.
A century ago, it was the biggest sporting event in Britain, the FA Cup final of its day, drawing tens of thousands of spectators.
But if the Hunting with Dogs Bill, currently making its way through parliament, becomes law, this could be the last Waterloo Cup.
Opponents including the League against Cruel Sports claim hare-coursing is inhumane. In a report published this week, the RSPCA, claim one in five of the hares chased by greyhounds are caught and killed by the dogs. (The National Coursing Club claims the true figure is one in eight.)
The RSPCA say death is not always instantaneous. Most hares suffer for at least 30 seconds after being caught.
In one case a hare remained alive for more than two minutes after being seized by the greyhounds.
Josie Sharrod, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, believes the fight to ban hare-coursing has been won, and that the Waterloo Cup will cease to exist, if not this year, then in 2004.
"In the 21st Century, it's appalling that people should be getting their kicks watching small animals being savaged by dogs. It's uncivilised, and it's time it was brought to an end."
For more than a decade, protestors have staged demonstrations in an adjoining field. They've become almost as traditional as the event itself. This year the demonstrators infuriated the spectators with chants of "Last time, last time..."
But at the same time, the Waterloo Cup continues to attract wide and varied support.
Well-heeled countryfolk watch from a car park, munching on champagne picnics laid out on the tailgates of their four-wheel drives.
At the other end of the course, coachloads of men from the northern cities swig crates of beer, on what for them is a traditional annual outing.
The television chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright first attended the Waterloo Cup seven years ago.
She said: "What a lot of these campaigners don't realise is that if coursing is stopped, the brown hare would cease to exist. Rather than being nurtured, it would be hunted to extinction by the farmers.
Clarissa Dickson-Wright: Preserving traditions
"This is about a freedom, and people's right not to be told what they can do and can't.
"And it's about preserving a very fine old traditional countryside activity."
Sam Butler, who's leading the Countryside Alliance's fight against the bill, said they hadn't given up yet.
"It still has to go through the Lords," he said, "and we'll continue to fight it every inch of the way. And even if hare-coursing is banned, we'll fight to have it reinstated. We will never give up."