LONDON (AP) – Thousands of fox hunters and hounds rode out Saturday at the start of the first season since their sport was banned, some of them intending to pursue tradition but others allegedly breaking the law.

Dozens of hunters set out in the chilly weather, hounds at their heels. Many participated in drag-hunting – which involves laying a scent trail for the hounds to follow.

Late Saturday, an anti-hunting group, the League Against Cruel Sports, said the law banning most forms of hunting with dogs, which took effect in February, appeared to have been largely successful.

“We are very pleased that there seems to have been relatively little lawbreaking today,” spokesman Mike Hobday said. “However, there are a number of cases where we will be presenting videotape evidence to the police.

“The real test of whether hunts are prepared to operate within the law without chasing foxes will be over the weeks to come when the public spotlight is off them.”

However, the rural umbrella group the Countryside Alliance denied there had been any lawbreaking Saturday.

“We are confident that hunts have been hunting within the law today,” spokeswoman Jill Grieve said. “It looks like all the hunts have been out and that they have managed to employ different methods successfully.”

In addition to the drag hunts, some hunters simply took their hounds for some exercise while some got around the ban by using birds of prey to catch foxes. Still others kill foxes with guns – which is not banned by the law.

The Hunting Act, which outlaws traditional fox hunting, hare-coursing and other kinds of hunting in which dogs pursue and kill the prey, was passed last year after an acrimonious battle in Parliament and noisy demonstrations in the streets.

Supporters of hunting say it is a traditional way of controlling predators, and argue that hunting is a vital part of the rural economy. But opponents say the sport is cruel and unnecessary.

Last month, nine Law Lords – senior lawyers in the House of Lords who constitute Britain’s highest court of appeal – unanimously dismissed an appeal by the Countryside Alliance, which argued that the government had been wrong to use the Parliament Act to enact the legislation over the opposition of the House of Lords.

The Countryside Alliance may still appeal the decision in the European courts.

The League Against Cruel Sports says up to 40 percent of hunts are expected to defy the law. In a recent report, it said there were 157 allegations of illegal hunting made against 79 hunts.

Dawn Preston of the Hunt Saboteurs’ Association – which used to confront hunters but now tries to work with the hunts to find alternatives – said her group now uses video cameras to monitor hunts’ activities.

“The ban can work, it will work – it just has to be enforced,” she said.

AP-ES-11-05-05 1941EST

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