HUNT supporters claim their activity is just as popular as ever with many hoping the Hunting Act 2004 will one day be repealed.

Followers of the Sir Watkin Williams Wynn’s Hounds, The Wynnstay Hunt, were delighted to see several hundred spectators turn out to witness the traditional Boxing Day meet at Malpas.

Nowadays the hounds do not hunt foxes – the law forbids it. Instead, The Wynnstay, do what most of Britain’s 180 hunts do, which is to lay trail for the hounds to follow pursued by the riders on horseback and others on foot.

Anthony Anson, joint secretary of The Wynnstay, estimated up to 500 members of the public gathered in the village to greet the procession. Pub landlords brought out stirrup cups while shops handed out sweets and lollipops to the children.

Mr Anson said of so-called drag hunting: “It’s made it very different and from the point of view of the traditional supporters of hunting it’s not what it was.”

He said traditional red hunting jackets had been now been replaced by mainly tweed jackets.

“It’s a very difficult subject because 1% of the country are hugely supportive, 1% are set against it, while 98% probably don’t feel it impinges on their lives. We just want to continue doing what we have always done and hopefully without too much disturbance.”

Mr Anson said the hunt, which covers parts of South Cheshire, North Shropshire and North Wales, was expected to meet again on New Year’s Day providing the ground was not frozen.

Richard Thomas, joint master of The Cheshire Hunt, was among about 60 riders – many wearing the traditional red jackets – out hunting near Tarporley on Boxing Day with thousands lining the High Street to witness the spectacle.

“It’s probably the best turn-out in the street that we have seen for a long, long time. It’s become something of a tradition. It was a very enjoyable day.”Mr Thomas described the Hunting Act as “pretty silly” and difficult to police, although he said the hunt tried to work within the law. Asked if he expected the Act would be repealed, after the Conservatives promised a free vote if they won the next general election, he responded: “That’s always a hope”.

Mr Thomas said pest control was now being carried out by farmers with guns who were not always able to kill the animals outright but left them “half dead”.

Hunt saboteurs no longer confronted the hunt although monitors were sometimes present. “Once we have explained to them what we are doing they are generally happy,” he added.

The Cheshire Forest Hunt gathered at The Duke of Portland pub at Lach Dennis, near Northwich, on Boxing Day where there were about 40 riders with some 300 supporters.

Richard de Prez, the joint master, mounted on his grey horse, told the crowd the ancient custom would continue until the Act was overturned, which was greeted with spontaneous applause.

Under the law, foxes cannot be pursued and killed by hounds but hunts can use a single dog to “flush out” foxes which can then be killed by a bird of prey or a man with a gun, The Cheshire Forest has a Harris hawk though it is rarely used.