THE small village of Bishopton, near Sedgefield, County Durham, was busier than usual on Boxing Day morning.

Approaching from Darlington, cars and horseboxes clung to every available piece of muddy grass verge as supporters of the South Durham Hunt turned out in their hundreds.

Outside The Talbot pub, in the centre of the village, people clung to hot toddies and polystyrene cups filled with thick, steaming vegetable soup.

Many in the crowd, who had turned out to see the annual Boxing Day ride set off, discussed the fine turnout of supporters between heavy puffs of air blown into cupped hands.

A blow on the horn from huntsman Simon Dobinson shortly after 11.30am signalled the start of the hunt, and the two dozen or so panting hounds led the horses past The Talbot, behind the church and into the damp County Durham countryside, not to return until darkness had fallen.

There was no sign of protests from anti-hunt campaigners, who had said they did not object to Boxing Day hunts if they stayed within the law.

Since the Government banned the hunting of foxes with hounds last year, Boxing Day meets have been well supported, and the Countryside Alliance predicted about 250,000 spectators would watch 314 registered hunts nationwide.

For the South Durham Hunt, it was a day of positives, with the turnout witnessing the first time a new trio of joint masters had led the Boxing Day meet.

After the retirement of former master Mark Shotton, three familiar faces to the hunt were installed as new masters.

Judy Shield, Gary Watchman and Ronnie Bainbridge took over the reins in May, before the season started in November.

After returning from the yesterday's hunt, which took the 45 riders around 28 miles of countryside, Mrs Shield said she was happy with the day. "We always get a lot of people turning out on Boxing Day and it is a wonderful occasion," she said.

"Since the Act, we have had really good support from our farmers, but also from the general public, a lot of whom came out today to see us off.

"I think people seem to think that our supporters are just based on class, and they are rich toffs, but that is not the case at all.

"Around here, we have been pleasantly surprised by how many people from little mining villages have actually come out to show their support.

"We get people following the hunt who lead very working-class lives and are very much what you would consider to be Labour voters."

Mrs Shield said that the hunt stayed within the new laws, but that members were hoping the anti-hunting legislation will be abolished.

She said: "It is not the same as it used to be if we are honest, and everyone is working together to keep the structure of hunting intact, so that when the Act is repealed, we are ready to go again."

The hunts of North Yorkshire were also out in force yesterday, including Hurworth Hunt, based in Northallerton.

Pedestrians stopped to watch as the riders paraded through the town centre, with traffic slowing to let them pass.

Their activities passed without incident. A police spokesman said: "Nothing untoward has happened. We have received no complaints."

In County Durham, the chairman and master of Braes of Derwent Hunt, Alan Chapman, said the hunt was waved off by 500 people from Lanchester.

There were about 75 people on horses and 35 hounds, which went trail-hunting on land around Greencroft and Iveston.

Mr Chapman said: "People come out to see a traditional scene, and it is lovely to have such a warm welcome.

"We went through the motions, but the ground was not holding the scent very well, which made it difficult.

"Still, it was nice to be out in the countryside, but good to get back as it was a cool and frosty day.

"We did see a fox and had to keep the hounds away from them, but we were quite a way off and he snuck off down the valley.

"They have been trained not to hunt hare and deer, and this is just another part of the process.

"No animals came to any harm, although there may have been a few riders with sore bums and cold feet by the end of the day.