THOUSANDS of people turned out to support the traditional Boxing Day hunts in the region, almost two years after the sport was outlawed by the Government.

Nationally, the Countryside Alliance estimated that more than 300,000 people attended about 300 hunts.

In Northallerton, North Yorkshire, hundreds of people lined the High Street to watch 40 riders from the Hurworth Hunt meet outside the Golden Lion pub.

Despite fears that the Hunting Act would lead to mass job losses in the countryside, and scores of hounds being put down, Hurworth huntsman Joe Townsend said support had increased since the ban was introduced in February, 2005.

"We have found a system which allows us to keep the infrastructure together until it is repealed," he said.

"Since the ban, we have more people who follow in cars. Initially, subscriptions went up, and have remained at that level since then.

"We are always pleased with the level of support we receive throughout the year.

"I am absolutely sure the ban will be repealed, but we will have to see Gordon Brown off first."

Mr Townsend thanked yesterday's crowd for their attendance, and added: "I think the turn-out today shows the support we have, and there is no need for a long political speech from me."

The Hunting Act made hunting with dogs a criminal offence, although exercising hounds, chasing a scent trail and flushing out foxes to be shot are all still legal.

Judy Shield, joint master of the South Durham Hunt, said they had a good turnout for their day, which began and ended at the Talbot Inn at Bishopton, near Darlington.

She said some 50 riders took part in the trail, together with up to 200 followers on foot.

Meanwhile, about 80 riders on horseback took part in the Braes of Derwent Hunt's Boxing Day meeting.

The riders met at the Queen's Head, in Lanchester, County Durham, before going trail-hunting on land around Greencroft and Iveston.

Alan Chapman, the chairman and master of the hunt, said: "We had a good turnout of foot followers from the village, which we do every year.

"There were lots of people from the houses waving us off. We got a good reception.

"We did a combination of trail hunting and hound exercises. It was lovely to be out in the countryside.

"I would say support is equally as strong as it has always been. We get a warm welcome from the Queen's Head and from Lanchester."

The League Against Cruel Sports has disputed claims that hunting is undergoing a revival, but Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, used the biggest day in the hunting calendar to speak out on hunting's future.

He said: "The law is so ambiguous and badly drafted that interpreting what is illegal hunting, what is legal hunting and what is not hunting at all, is nearly impossible.

"Meanwhile, the campaign for the repeal of the Hunting Act continues to gain momentum.

"Only 29 per cent of people think that the Hunting Act is working, according to a poll, and an increasing number of politicians of all parties are coming to accept the case for the repeal of this legislation."