Hunting returned to the New Forest this weekend as the debate continues over its future.

Members of the New Forest Hounds and their supporters took part in their annual first meeting of the hunt season in the ancient woodland.

It came as the debate over fox hunting was reignited as farmers in parts of the UK called on the Government to relax some of the laws surrounding the practice.

This has raised fears that such steps could lead to the return of legalised fox hunting, which critics say causes unnecessary suffering and is a cruel sport.

Many of those in the crowd watching the hunt expressed their hope that the fox hunting ban would be repealed and said hunting was part of the traditions of the New Forest.

They also said that the high numbers taking part this year proved its popularity had not waned despite the ban in 2005.

The hunt set off from a field close to the Royal Oak pub in Fritham, in autumn sunshine. Hundreds of people gathered to see at least 50 horses and their riders off along with the accompanying hounds. In line with the fox hunting ban, they tracked an artificial trail.

Paul Ames, one of the masters of the hunt, told the assembled crowd: “We want to make sure we’re here for quite a few years to come and maybe one day we’ll get fox hunting legalised and that might be just a few seasons off.”

Farmers in Cornwall and Devon as well as Wales have called for fox hunting laws to be relaxed. They say the rule that farmers can only use two dogs to flush out a fox to be shot is not working and attacks on sheep have increased.

Prime Minister David Cameron has been reported to have sympathy with the farmers’ concerns while last month New Forest East MP Julian Lewis said he would “vote to repeal” a ban if the issue came up again.

Mr Ames told the Daily Echo he wanted the fox hunting ban lifted, adding: “A fox is a very emotive thing, but the most humane thing if a fox needs killing is to have it killed quickly.

“What the act has done is remove the quickness of a pack of hounds and replaced it with snaring and wounding, which are much slower and more painful deaths.”

He said the increase in foxes had led to more sheep deaths. Other members of the crowd supported a return to traditional fox hunting.

Patty Upward, 58, from Sway, who has been involved in hunting for 30 years, said the New Forest was established for hunting and that there had been an explosion in the fox population since the ban and culling was necessary.

Last month, Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, told the Daily Echo moves to relax the ban were “nothing but an attempt at repeal by the back door”.