IN THE warm spring sunshine, they came in their hundreds to the Scottish Borders - sad, defiant and angry.
At precisely 11am at Bowhill in Selkirkshire, the stirrup cup was handed round to fortify the riders at the final meet of the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt.
The hounds picked up an early scent and the riders headed up into the Ettrick Valley. As the master and 40 hounds pressed for a fox, with the rest of the field looking down at them below, Trevor Adams - the joint master of the hunt - sounded his horn to signal a fox.
After a 15-minute chase involving the full field of more than 200 riders - some of whom had travelled from the United States for the historic day - the fox went to ground.
It was not until later in the afternoon that a second scent was picked up, this time on the other side of Bowhill House. On this occasion, the fox made an easy escape after a brief chase.
With the sun beginning to set, the last of the field decided to call it a day at about 6pm.
No foxes had been caught as 176 years of the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt ended with a whimper.
A thousand or so supporters had gathered to follow the hunt. Many were defiant, insisting this was not the end; others clearly felt that a finale was being played out.
Following the successful passage of the Protection of Wild Mammals Bill in the Scottish parliament last month, hunting is likely to be outlawed by next season.
Yet the Duke of Buccleuch vowed that the fight to save hunting would go on - and that yesterday’s gathering may not be the last of its kind.
"This is Ettrick Forest, which has stood for 600 years, and it may be the end of the season but is not the end of hunting," he declared.
"The real battle now moves to the courts. The lives of many will be shattered in areas where there are few alternatives. This must be challenged in every legal way," said the Duke, confined to a wheelchair after breaking his neck in a fall while hunting.
Although many of those attending the hunt stand to lose their livelihoods next season, they refused to concede their sport was finished.
Rebecca Baker-McEwan, 21, a groom for the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt, said: "It is very sad to think that we might not be out enjoying the countryside like we have done today come next season. Sometimes town people do not understand the way the countryside works."
Among yesterday’s riders was Allan Murray, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, which claims the ban will cost 300 jobs. He said: "This is by no means the end of the fight to preserve hunting in Scotland. The battle will go on.
"We have had an open invitation to MSPs to come down and see what hunting is about but virtually none has come to do so. We believe that the legislation passed by the Scottish parliament is fundamentally flawed and based on ignorance and prejudice. It also undermines a way of life that we have been enjoying for generations. It will be vigorously contested in the courts."
Laura Hunt had come from the US to participate at yesterday’s meet. Mrs Hunt, who rides with the Blue Ridge Hunt in Virginia, said: "I grew up riding and we love it in America. I am sorry to see Scottish people think it needs to stop and I’m hoping it will carry on for the sake of everyone involved.
"Although today is touched with a bit of sadness, we hope it won’t be the end. Just being out in such beautiful countryside is enough to make you realise how important it is to keep hunting."
The field contained representatives from three US hunts as well as England.
Hazel Sheppard, master of the Albrighton Woodland Hunt in Worcestershire, said: "Although we are at a different stage south of the Border, we are looking upon what is happening here with concern. Hounds chasing foxes is nothing more than natural behaviour in the wild and all we do is try and keep up on our horses. You can see today we have people here who are 70-plus to five- or six-year-old children, all enjoying an exhilarating ride up and down ravines in this beautiful part of Scotland."
Mr Adams said hunting had been "his life" for the past 14 years. "Today has been a good one. We chased two foxes, with one going to ground, which means escaping down a hole. This is not the end for us or hunting."