IT was a typically English picture postcard scene. Forty riders in smart blazers, traditional pinks and polished brass buttons taking the lead of an excitable pack of hounds.

But as South Durham Hunt galloped across Tony Blair's pretty Sedgefield constituency, it was not a fox they were pursuing but one of their own.

With a 30-minute head-start, energetic member Nick Walker weaved his way across the countryside leaving a familiar scent for the pack to follow.

After a two-hour pursuit through the patchwork of farmed fields and woodland the field was victorious.

But for the hundreds of followers who tracked the party in cars, the thrill of the chase was lost and with it, the hunting lobby say, will go a centuries-old way of life.

Hunt master Mark Shotton said: "The anticipation of the day has gone with a drag hunt, there is no wondering whether we'll find a fox, where we will go and whether it will get away.

"There is no excitement for followers, they'll soon get bored of watching us follow a man on foot or horseback. We'll try to keep going but there is an uncertain future.

"The main problem will be with the farmers. We worked closely with them to help with problem foxes but why would they let us ride over their land just so we can enjoy a ride out?"

In anticipation of the ban, the hunt had trained a small pack of young hounds specifically for trail hunting.

Mr Shotton said: "I really feel for a lot of hunts planning to use foxhounds for drag hunts. I don't know how an animal bred for generations to follow a fox scent will be able to resist, should they accidentally pick up that of a live fox."

Hours before the party set off, hundreds of supporters gathered on a chilly morning to give hunt organisers a warm reception.

Hoisted above the cheering crowds on a digger, principal members of the hunt vowed to stay strong and fight the ban against hunting with dogs. Their chairman, Dick Watkins, said: "We are going to campaign for the removal of this legislation which has nothing to do with animal welfare, if anything it is putting the fox at greater danger as a species.

"This is not the last hunt, we are determined to continue within the confines of the law until the ban is removed."

Professional huntsman Simon Dobinson demonstrated the method many hunts are expected to adopt in order to hold legal drag pursuits.

Two foxhounds were sent into woodland to flush out a fox which a gunman then shot - taking three attempts and several minutes after the first wounding to kill it.

Mr Shotton said: "I always believed if a fox gets into earth it has won. The tables have now turned. We could set a drag up to that earth, dig out the fox, kill it and feed it to the hounds. This is what will happen."

Elsewhere in the region, the Zetland hunt descended on Aldbrough St John, near Richmond, North Yorkshire, to chase a man wearing a Tony Blair mask through the village.

Thousands of hunt supporters gathered at eight meets across the county.

More than 300 members of the Cleveland Hunt turned out in Kildale, and about 500 people cheered and clapped as the Bedale Hunt rode into West Tanfield, near Masham.

Cleveland's master of fox hounds, John Thomson, said no foxes were killed as more than 50 riders, followed by about 250 people on foot, took part in hound exercises and a simulated hunt.

In Lanchester, County Durham, more than 100 horses from the Braes of Derwent Hunt exercised the hounds through the village.

Hunt chairman Alan Chapman said: "We were out yesterday to demonstrate to politicians that they have no understanding of our country way of life.

"We will do everything within our powers to change it legally.

"It is an unjust law, which is unenforceable."