THERE was a mood of defiance across Herefordshire as thousands of people gathered in market towns and villages to support the festive hunts.

Many of those attending said there were now more followers than when the ban on hunting with hounds was introduced three years ago.

Olive Greenway, watching her granddaughter ride with the Golden Valley Hunt in Hay-on-Wye, said the government ban had brought publicity which attracted a new audience to the meets.

She was one of around 900 people stood below Hay's clock tower on Boxing Day morning who cheered the riders off on a trail laid by hunt chairman Nigel Birch through Llanigon and up towards Hay Bluff.

The Hunting Act made it a criminal offence to hunt with dogs, but still allows hounds to follow a scent.

One huntsman in Hay said he understood why there was opposition to foxhunting, but felt the law had done little to clear up the debate.

Horseman David Davies said: "I can see it from both sides and I recognise it's cruel to have 18 hounds bearing down on a fox but you do have to control their numbers somehow so what's the alternative?

"We don't want to impose our views on anyone and we know we live in a democratic society, but we would just like to be listened to."

Mal Williams, of the South Herefordshire Hunt, asked the government to stop using their sport as a political football and expressed his wish for licenses to be given to the groups so they may hunt as before.

He added that the 2,000 people who gathered at the Tump Inn in Wormelow was the biggest show of public support that he could remember for a Boxing Day meet.

And over in Ledbury, one of the biggest attendances in the country cheered Joint Master Tom Leeke as he told the 6,000 strong crowd the hunt would continue for many years to come.

Donald Haden, a spokesman for the Ledbury Hunt, was even interviewed by Russian television in the packed streets before the hounds were moved off towards Kempley.

He said: "An enjoyable day was had by all with hunt staff taking advantage of the many exemptions allowed within the law to replicate as near as possible a traditional day of hunting."