Fox hunts will meet across the country today – nearly 15 years after the bloodsport was banned.
The 2004 Hunting Act came into force on February 18, 2005 – stopping the cruel practice of hunting wild mammals, including foxes, deer and hares, with dogs.
However, the ban has failed to prevent hunts meeting to carry out legal drag or trail hunts.
Campaigners claim these are a “cover” for foxes to continue to be mauled to death by packs of hounds.
The charity said it had received 184 reports of suspected illegal fox hunting since the season began in late October.
Conservative governments have twice tried and failed to overturn the ban.
That came two-and-a-half years after Theresa May was said to have blundered during the 2017 ballot box race by speaking up for hunts.
Drag hunting – where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent -is permitted under the legislation.
More than 80 Boxing Day hunt meets are taking place across the UK today, with the majority being held in England, according to the Countryside Alliance.
As tunic-wearing riders prepare to cry “Tally ho!”, the League Against Cruel Sports demanded the removal of loopholes it claims allow hunts to continue killing foxes.
The charity’s director of campaigns Chris Luffingham said: “As they parade today in their gaudy finery, fox hunts will be facing the fact that, with their political support gone, hunting is history.
“Their 14-year campaign to repeal the fox hunting ban hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of success.
“There has been a sea change in the way the fox hunting debate is being framed and with the ban now secure, our emphasis has shifted towards the strengthening of the Hunting Act.”
The League believes the public backs changes to the Act, cracking down on hunts which fail to respect the law.
A recent poll showed 85% of people support keeping the ban on hunting – and the League wants jail terms for those convicted of illegal hunting.
It published its Animal Welfare Manifesto in August, detailing plans for “closing loopholes that allow for illegal hunting of foxes, deer and hares”.
Mr Luffingham added: “To end fox hunting for good, the Hunting Act needs to be strengthened by removing the loopholes and exemptions being exploited by the fox hunts to cover up their brutal activities.
“The introduction of prison sentences for those convicted of fox hunting would help ensure there is a strong deterrent to prevent the deliberate and widespread chasing and killing of foxes.”
Luke Pollard MP, Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, said: “Fox hunting is cruel, unnecessary and unpopular. It should be consigned to the history books.
“The Prime Minister must ensure his majority is not used to allow the return of fox hunting. Labour will use every opportunity to enhance and strengthen the Hunting Act, reviewing penalties to make sure there is an effective deterrent for illegal hunting, and introducing a ‘recklessness’ clause to stop trail hunts being used to kill foxes.”
But the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance called on it supporters to flock to meets today.
Its website said: “Those opposed to hunting have already stated that they will be lobbying the Government not only to ensure the Act is not overturned, but to insist that it is scrutinised with a view to strengthening it.
“Boxing Day meets offer hunts the perfect opportunity to showcase their legal hunting activities to the public.
“We need to give the world the chance to understand what makes us all so passionate about following hounds.
“Now is the time for the hunting community to work together to ensure we tell our story and let the general public, politicians and hunting’s opponents know why our way of life should be free from attack.”
The Alliance’s head of hunting Polly Portwin said: “The Hunting Act never really had anything to do with animal welfare.
“It was a misplaced and prejudiced attack on a group within the rural community by those on the left of politics who think class war is a legitimate aim.
“Since the Hunting Act was enforced, hunts have adapted their hunting activities, retained their infrastructure, continued to wear traditional hunt dress and established a long-term and viable future for hunting, all of which has frustrated those who thought hunts would disband following the implementation of the Hunting Act.
“The animal rights lobby simply cannot accept that huntsmen wearing red coats survive, regardless of the fact that their actions are legitimate.
“One thing that has certainly not benefited from the Hunting Act is animal welfare and it is very telling that the anti-hunting groups that spent £30million to push the Act through have not spent a penny on trying to show that it has actually had any benefit.”
Queen star Brian May said he will support a humane bloodhound hunt on Boxing Day to highlight the cruelty-free side of recreational hunting.
The guitarist and animal rights campaigner will join the Three Counties Bloodhounds, a “friendly family run pack”, for its annual event in Swansea on Thursday alongside Byron John, the master of the “clean boot” hunt.
The event will see riders on horseback and their team of hounds chasing a human runner instead of a fox.