DRESSED smartly in her black riding jacket, jodhpurs, and hat Stephnie Bell is excited about setting off for a day of hunting.

But it could be the last time she and her friends at the South Durham Hunt will gather.

She said: "People do not understand hunting and that is why they are trying to ban it.

"They see hunting as something that pompous old men wearing red coats do, and their wives and children are dragged along against their will.

"This is not true, we are not snobs, we are a small community. Everybody knows everybody and we look out for each other."

Her enthusiasm is infectious, as she and other members of the hunt, who range from farmers to car salesmen, sit in the living room of huntmaster Mark Shotton's home in Wingate.

Stephnie and Sophie Watchman, 11, whose dad Gary is a hunt leader, realise what they are doing is seen by many as cruel but they see it as a part of country life.

Stephnie said she had seen a fox killed on a couple of occasions but it did not worry her.

She said: "The fox is killed instantly. It is over in a matter of seconds. Young foxes can outrun the hounds. We catch the older or the injured foxes."

Stephnie's parents, Gordon and Janet, do not take part in the hunt. Mrs Bell runs Robinsons Butchers in Wingate and does the catering for hunt events, while Mr Bell follows the riders in his car.

He said: "I would rather she do this than hang around on street corners. She has her horse to look after every night and she loves it. She takes a bit of stick at school for doing it but she is mature about it."

Stephnie and Sophie talk about travelling to London to protest about the Government's hunting bill, which will ban the sport if it becomes law later this year.

South Durham Hunt has been running for 170 years. It is not just the horsemen and women who gather for the events on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The hunt has a loyal following. Many see it as a family day out with people taking along a packed lunch.

Sometimes the gathering does not find a fox. This was one of those occasions.

Mr Shotton said: "There were several foxes and they just made fools of us.

"We have one fox that we call Tony. He runs from the woods behind Tony Blair's house and we have chased him three times and we haven't caught him yet. Hopefully he will be there for a long time to come."

The Hunting Bill will be discussed in the Commons in ten days time when MPs will seek to amend proposed legislation to it bans all hunting with dogs.