By Brian Wheeler
Tony Blair's local hunt was out in force on Monday in a show of defiance at the threatened ban on the sport.
Huntsmen and women chatted with villagers before departing
Some 97 members of the South Durham hunt gathered in the village of Bishopton, in the prime minister's constituency, for what could be their final Boxing Day meeting - delayed for one day as hunts do not take place on Sundays.
But there was little sign of despondency as the huntsmen and women drank from stirrup cups and chatted with villagers.
Locals said it was the biggest turnout for a Boxing Day event in living memory.
Rumours of a demonstration by anti-hunt protesters proved unfounded.
A League Against Cruel Sports spokeswoman said the organisation had taken a deliberate decision not to demonstrate at Boxing Day hunts.
"We wanted to ensure our supporters' safety," she said. "Feelings were running too high and it was too dangerous."
Hunt master Mark Shotton said the hunting community had taken heart from the government's decision to allow the Countryside Alliance to take out an injunction against the ban, if its legal challenge to the Parliament Act failed in the New Year.
"I think things have changed in this past week. There is a lot of hope out there.
Rumours of an anti-hunt demonstration proved unfounded
"We cannot do anything illegal. But something will happen. I am confident we will be able to continue. This won't be the last Boxing Day hunt."
He said the hunt had plans to "keep everything ticking over until after the next election".
But the League Against Cruel Sports called the government's decision "an act of cowardice", which set a "dangerous precedent" for other laws.
Their spokeswoman added: "We are confident that the law is the law. It will be illegal for dogs to chase wild animals. The law is easy to understand and it is easy to enforce."
Mr Shotton, a farmer from Wingate, close to Mr Blair's constituency home, said the South Durham Hunt had been meeting for "more than 200 years" and said he believed the issue would cost Labour votes in the area.
"I used to support Tony Blair in the early days, but not any more," he added.
Sarah McGhee, 16, who lives on a local farm, said it was her first hunt, but she intendend to be back again next year.
"It's an English tradition isn't it?," she said.
Kimberley Woodley-Heinz, who had dressed in traditional hunting regalia for the occasion, still held out hope for a change of heart by the government.
"Tony Blair is a countryman," she said. "He grew up in the countryside."
The hunt assembled outside The Talbot pub, where landlord Brian Sharp proudly displays pictures of Mr Blair and John Prescott enjoying his hospitality.
Danny Kruger is the man hoping to unseat Tony Blair at the election
But that did not prevent him from serving drinks to those on horseback and cups of lamb curry to the large crowd who had braved the frosty December air to wish them well.
He said the hunt was good for his business and he did not want to see it outlawed.
Prospective Parliamentary candidate Danny Kruger - the man the Conservatives have chosen to take on Tony Blair in Sedgefield at the next election - was also taking part in the hunt.
'Bend the law'
Mr Kruger, 30, who works at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London, made a brief political speech before the hunt set off.
Perched on an upturned beer crate outside The Talbot, he said: "This is the biggest rural social event of the year, and Tony Blair is not here because he is terrified."
He added: "I am not going to encourage you to break the law, but I am going to encourage you to bend it."
Mr Kruger admitted he faced an uphill task in what is one of the safest Labour seats in the country, but insisted hunting would be an issue - even for people in the urban part of the constituency.
Opinion was divided among local people, however.
Huntsmen vow they will be back on Boxing Day next year
"If you are already against the government, I suppose it will give you another reason not to vote for them," said Christine Hill.
"But this has always been a Labour area."
Margaret Fellow, of Carlton, a nearby village, said: "I don't think it should be abolished. Especially as royalty enjoy it. Our daughter, who is 30, disagrees with us. She thinks it's cruel."
James Bates, of the Countryside Alliance, said he was confident its legal challenges would enable people to "carry on hunting for years to come".
He said the alliance had published a 50-page guide for hunt masters on how to get round the ban and continue hunting.
And although the organisation was not allowed to endorse political candidates, it intended to keep the issue in the headlines at the next election.