HUNDREDS of spectators headed out to the traditional Boxing day hunt in the New Forest.

The New Forest Hounds (NFH) met at Bolton’s Bench, Lyndhurst yesterday with around 60 riders taking part.

The group used to stage the annual meet outside the Balmer Lawn Hotel in Lyndhurst Road, Brockenhurst.

But the growing size of the crowd sparked fears of an accident involving horses and spectators, resulting in the venue being switched to a huge open area opposite Lyndhurst Fire Station.

The event follows a year in which hunting has once again found itself at the centre of controversy.

Hunting with dogs was outlawed more than ten years ago but the NFH and many other packs have switched to trail hunting, which involves hounds chasing an artificial scent laid by hunt members on foot.

This year a proposal to ban trail hunting on land owned by the National Trust was narrowly defeated at the charity’s annual meeting.

New research carried out by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) claims that opposition to repealing the hunting ban is at an all-time high.

A LACS spokesman said: “Boxing Day hunts are portrayed as a glorious pageant taking place in front of a huge number of people who support them, but the truth is very different.

“The fact is 84 per cent of the public do not want foxhunting made legal.”

But the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance has voiced its support for the yearly spectacle.

A spokesman said: “Christmas wouldn’t be the same without wrapping up in warm, outdoor clothes to cheer as hounds and horses leave the meet.

“Boxing Day meets are always magical.”