HUNDREDS of spectators are expected to watch the start of the traditional Boxing Day hunt in the New Forest today.

Each year the New Forest Hounds (NFH) set off from a huge area of grassland near Bolton’s Bench, a landmark hill on the edge of Lyndhurst.

Hunting with dogs was outlawed by the last Labour government 15 years ago.

Since then the NFH and other packs have switched to trail hunting, which involves hounds chasing an artificial scent laid by hunt supporters.

Hunt members are due to assemble at 10.45am before moving off at 11am.

A limited amount of parking is available at Bolton's Bench but spectators are advised to park in the village and walk to the yew-capped hillock.

New Forest Post:

The annual meet used to be staged in front of the Balmer Lawn Hotel in Lyndhurst Road, Brockenhurst, but was switched to Bolton's Bench several years ago for safety reasons.

Hunt supporters said the extra room would make it easier to keep the horses and hounds separate as well as providing spectators with a better view.

Last year the New Forest hunt took place in near-perfect conditions and lasted several hours.

NFH joint-master Graham Ferris told the crowd: “You’re part of the Boxing Day tradition, not only of the New Forest but of the country as a whole.”

Dr Ferris said the other 250 Boxing Day hunts being staged across the UK were likely to be watched by about 250,000 people.

He added: “The New Forest started as a hunting forest for William the Conqueror - and we have been hunting in the area for 237 years.”

Referring to the ban on hunting with hounds and the introduction of trail hunting he said: “That’s what we will be doing today - hunting within the law.”

Dr Ferris was cheered as he added: “We hope the Forest will be a hunting forest in another 1,000 years.”

Bolton's Bench is named after the 18th century Duke of Bolton, Lord Warden of the New Forest, whose family were Master Keepers of Burley Bailiwick.