FOX hunts across the region rode out in force today (Friday, December 26) - despite hunting with dogs being banned for almost a decade.

North-East and North Yorkshire huntsmen and women say they continue to operate within the law in the hope the Hunting Act 2004 will one day be overturned.

According to the Countryside Alliance, since the act came into force on February 18 2005, not a single hunt in the region has folded - contrary to initial fears.

And Andrew Spalding, joint master of the Zetland Hunt, says hunts now have more public support than ever and still attract large fields of riders.

The Zetland, which hunts in the County Durham and North Yorkshire borders, meets regularly during the hunting season, with hounds tracking an artificial scent rather than foxes.

"There's still strong support for hunting from a wide range of people in general and there will be an awful lot of people out on Boxing Day," says Mr Spalding, who describes the Hunting Act as "illogical" and believes far from improving animal welfare, it has a detrimental impact.

"There are just as many foxes being killed and some of them by snaring which is very cruel - we saw a fox recently that was hung up in a snare and looked like it had trying to bite itself to get out.

"There's also a lot of lamping going on at night.

"Farmers are telling us they are seeing a lot more people on their land illegally and they're causing a lot of damage."

Gary Watchman is joint master of the South Durham Hunt, which covers a large area from the Wear to the Tees, extending to Bishop Auckland in the west and the coast in the east.

He says that thanks to the farmers and landowners which allow access to the horses and hounds, his hunt is still going strong.

However, he admits to feeling "embarrassment" that the hunt is unable to carry out the task it was formed in 1870 to do - catch foxes.

"We're still here ten years after the ban but I'm not sure we are that much further forward in getting it overturned," he says.

"I've been a master right through the ban and my son Gareth is coming into mastership now, so I'll continue for another 15 to 20 years and he will carry on for maybe 30 years after that - we're still going to be here whether the legislation changes or not."

Mr Watchman believes that one consequence of the ban is the sharp rise in County Durham's fox population.

"If you have a mild summer like we've had recently, vixens can have two litters.

"At the moment foxes are everywhere and I think in ten years time there will be a plague of them in towns like Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough.

"I think it's going to be a serious, serious problem - bairns wont be able to play in the street."

But while hunt supporters call for the ban to be lifted, the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) wants to see changes to the Hunting Act to tighten the legislation.

LACS' main recommendations include prohibiting the use of dogs below ground, inserting a ‘reckless’ provision to ensure the killing of wild mammals during a trail hunt cannot be passed off as an unfortunate accident and increasing the punishments available to the courts to those found guilty of breaking the law.

Joe Duckworth, LACS chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the Hunting Act was an "effective and popular" piece of legislation.

However, he added: "Since its introduction, the act has been the target of considerable attack from the pro-hunt lobby which has waged an on-going and concerted campaign of disinformation to publicly discredit the legislation and promote their campaign for repeal.

“The problem is not with the law. It’s with those that flout it. It is time to now build on the successes of first ten years and strengthen the Hunting Act to ensure the spirit of the act is fulfilled."

Tim Bonner, director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, said the Hunting Act had done nothing to protect foxes, but had wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money and thousands of hours of police time.

“The hunts across the North-East are still here and still hunting and will continue to do so as we push for repeal of this illogical and illiberal act," he says.