THOUSANDS of people in the Three Counties came out to cheer on the annual gatherings of the Boxing Day Hunts, for what is by now a long-established festive tradition.

Hunts out and about on Boxing Day, all following carefully-prepared artificial trails, included the Croome and West Warwickshire Hunt, which met at Pershore and the Worcestershire Hunt, which met at Droitwich.

In Ledbury in Herefordshire, around 3000 people gathered in the High Street to show support for Ledbury Hunt and, as is customary, many of the riders enjoyed hot punch from the saddle, courtesy of the Feathers Hotel, a half-timbered coaching inn.

This year, a number of American voices could be heard in the crowd, an indication of the pull of the spectacle which, for many people, still represents the appeal of traditional rural England.

After rain in the night, followed by a mild frost, Boxing Day offered a morning of bright sunlight, and a big crowd started to gatherer in Ledbury Town Centre.

From a matter of perhaps hundreds at 10.15am, by 10.45am the numbers easily exceeded 3000, as more than 30 riders settled down their horses and the excited hounds mingled with the crowds: even at times touching noses with bemused family pets, on leads.

There was a large gulf in ages between the youngest riders who were perhaps under ten years of age, and the oldest, who was Ivor Stephens, aged 94, and perhaps the oldest active member of any hunt in the land.

One spokesman for the Ledbury Hunt, on behalf of the Masters, mentioned the large number of onlookers and said it was indicative of ongoing support for the Hunt.

He then wished everyone a Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.

Then the barriers were removed at Top Cross as the riders and hounds galloped up the Homend, before turning back to stream up the High Street, to the cheer of the crowds.

Before the day, former Hunt Master, Donald Haden explained that the aim of the day was to follow pre-laid trails in the Dymock area, just over the border in Gloucestershire.

The Croome and West Warwickshire Hunt also enjoyed great public support on the day, with large crowds gathering in Pershore all along Broad Street and the High Street.

Secretary Sally Millington said: "It was a good turn-out. We had fifty to sixty riders, including quite a few little ones, and it was good to see them. They dressed their ponies up in tinsel."

She said of the condition of the ground: "With the rain in the night, we have to respect the landowners and the condition of the ground, and so the plan is to have what we call a steady day, following a trail in the Drakes Broughton and Peopleton area, for two or three hours."