HUNDREDS turned out to enjoy one of the great Boxing Day traditions yesterday as hunts gathered for their annual festive meet.

As Agriculture Minister Jim Paice publicly voiced his support for a return to hunting with dogs, stirrup cups were being raised across the region.

And in Northallerton a little bit of history was made as the Hurworth and Bilsdale Hunts held a joint Yuletide gathering for the first time.

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The two neighbouring hunts – Bilsdale, established in 1668, is thought to be the oldest in the country – have been meeting side-by-side for the past year and even closer ties could soon be on the cards.

Hurworth chairman and Master of Foxhounds Ken Fox said: “We’re looking at possible amalgamation in about two years down the line.”

In County Durham, the South Durham Hunt gathered with about 60 horses and dozens of hounds outside the Kings Arms pub, in Great Stainton, near Sedgefield.

It was the first time for about ten years that the 400-year-old tradition had returned to its original location in Great Stainton, where a large crowd gathered in the village to support the event.

Gary Watchman, joint master of the South Durham Hunt, said: “There is quite a big turnout but the biggest problem is the wind blowing the trails everywhere.

“We are keeping the tradition alive and keeping the flag flying.”

Ian Wright, a hunt supporter, said: “We are out hunting as often as we can. It is a very social event. The essence of it is people meeting and getting together.”

Yesterday was the seventh Boxing Day since hunting wild animals with dogs was banned but calls for the end of the 2005 Hunting Act have continued unabated.

Visiting a meet in Peterborough Mr Paice, whose portfolio includes hunting, gave his support to those calls.

“The current law simply doesn’t work,” he said.

“I personally am in favour of hunting with dogs – and the Coalition Agreement clearly states that we will have a free vote on whether to repeal the Act when there is time in the Parliamentary calendar to do so.”

The chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, Alice Barnard, welcomed his support.

“It is a point of pride for rural communities across Britain that, despite the prejudice and ignorance of some, hunting remains as strong as ever,” she said.

However, opponents of hunting insist there is no desire among the public to repeal the Act.

Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: “There is no place for animal cruelty in a civilised society and most people back Labour’s ban on hunting wild animals with dogs.

“People are worried about their incomes falling, prices rising and losing their jobs, yet this out of touch Tory-led government wants to bring hunting back.”