Flora Watkins reports When Jenny Grace arrived at the Pytchley Hunt's meet yesterday (Thursday), resplendent in smart black jacket, with polished and plaited horse, it marked the fulfilment of a long-cherished childhood ambition.
Although she grew up in the heart of the Pytchley's Northamptonshire country and has always, she says, been "pro-hunting", the hunt itself - in the Premier League of English foxhound packs - appeared a little intimidating. "It seemed almost like a closed community," says Jenny, 30.
"Everyone appeared quite well off and had beautiful horses. I've got a 14-hand pony who's blind in one eye. I thought, 'Oh God, I'll be frowned on!'?" Until now, that is.
Once Jenny, a sonographer at Northampton General Hospital, "liked" the Pytchley's Facebook page - and began messaging the hunt organisers - she felt confident enough to take the plunge. "We chatted through what to wear and what to expect.
I wanted to know if I could wear a body protector and, as it was both mine and the horse's first time, I didn't want to jump." Her fears allayed, Jenny and her friend Emma Arthur, who also works in the NHS, went hunting for the first time earlier this month. Both women are now thoroughly hooked.
"We had a brilliant time; I couldn't wait to go out again," says Jenny. "Everyone was so friendly, I even got invited to a party." For Emma, 41, hunting had been on her "bucket list" since reading pony books by the Pullein-Thompson sisters as a child, with titles such as I Carried The Horn and We Hunted Hounds.
The day, she says, was a revelation. "I was a bit reticent," she admits. "I'm aware that hunting sometimes has a reputation for being stuffy - but everyone was lovely, and so helpful. The group that wasn't jumping took us under their wing and the hunt secretary came up to us and said we were immaculately turned out.
"I posted a 'thank you' on their Facebook page," she adds. "Facebook just helps to break down some of those barriers." Indeed, all around the country, hunt secretaries are finding that social media is their new best friend when it comes to recruiting a fresh generation of supporters, encouraged to have a go by a friendly online presence.
At the Surrey Union Hunt, Catherine Heilbron attributes the success of their recent newcomers' day (100 people, up from 56 last year) directly to the hunt's Facebook page. "It's about being accessible and having a bit of banter and fun," she explains.
"A lot of people genuinely want to come out hunting but are terrified - not of the riding, but of doing the wrong thing. What stands out from our feedback on Facebook is that we are friendly and inclusive - not exclusive."
South of Edinburgh, at the Lauderdale Hunt, Tor Walton is also using Facebook and Twitter to explode the pervasive myth that hunting is the preserve of red-faced gouty squires.
The Lauderdale's social media feeds teem with details of meets, horses for hire, hunting photos - pictures of the latest additions to the "tumblers' club" are particularly popular - small ads and queries. A recent post seeks a coat, mislaid at the recent hunt ball, identifiable by the "packet of Lambert & Butler in the pocket".
"We are getting a lot of new people coming down from Edinburgh," says Tor, 32, whose day job is in the renewable energy sector. "They just wouldn't have been aware we existed without the Facebook page." One such newcomer is Ginny Scott, 28, a project manager who moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh for work.
The online presence made getting involved so straightforward, she says. "It was easy to make the first contact - I just sent a message while sitting at my desk. I didn't know anyone there, but they've all been so welcoming. I've been out three or four times, went to the hunt ball and have just bought a book of tickets which gives me six more days hunting."
Back in the Midlands, the Pytchley's smaller neighbour, the Woodland Pytchley, is also expecting a bigger turnout today. Again, it's all down to Facebook, says Carol Lees, who maintains the hunt's page.
"As an advertising medium for our events, it beats the hell out of anything else," she adds. Carol estimates they have had 25 new people out this season, as the hunt's internet activities help to dispel the "stuffy" and "snobbish" tags with which hunting's opponents like to tarnish it. Of course, the overwhelmingly friendly tone is no accident.
Carol, who is currently showing her granddaughter the ropes, peppers the Woodland Pytchley's page with encouraging messages for the Boxing Day first-timers.
"Hope all the newcomers manage to get a good night's sleep," reads a recent post. "Butterflies are a good thing and disappear as soon as we move off. Most of all, don't worry, it's not as scary as you think. We will look after you and want you to love this as much as we do."
Yet fun is not quite the only motive for collecting newcomers. Hunting is now in its ninth season under the fox-hunting ban, with hounds following pre-laid trails instead of a live quarry. Yet support for fox hunting is stronger than ever, up by about a quarter since the 2005 Hunting Act, the Countryside Alliance estimates.
Hunts - and the farmers who allow them to ride over their land - remain committed to achieving full repeal of the Act, a law that, they say, is not working for either the hunts, the courts, or the wildlife it purports to protect. With the free vote on the ban promised by David Cameron looking unlikely in this Parliament, hunting people know that broadening access and support is key to winning hearts and minds for repeal. Here, social media is proving a powerful tool.
"Hunting is trying hard to shed the inaccurate image the antis like to portray: that it is a closed community and a pastime for toffs," says Tim Bonner, campaigns director at the Countryside Alliance.
"We all know how inclusive hunting is and Facebook helps to add to this accessibility. It also attracts younger people, which can only be good for our future." Indeed, could the tide already be turning? Recent calls for a relaxing of the ban - allowing hunts to flush foxes to the gun using a full pack of hounds, rather than the two currently allowed - have attracted the Prime Minister's sympathy.
The proposal was put forward by the Federation of Welsh Farmers' Packs, with farmers in Wales complaining that they have lost substantially more lambs to foxes since the Hunting Act came in.
At the same time, even hunts that had, perhaps, appeared to be impenetrable private members' clubs are now opening up thanks to Facebook and Twitter. They are allowing newcomers to experience what the Victorian comic novelist RS Surtees identified some 160 years ago - "that hunting reverberates through the whole of our social system… it unites all classes in brotherly union".
It is something that Tony Blair himself came to realise - albeit regretting his support of the hunting ban a few years too late. But this plugged-in generation of hunting supporters needs no such persuading: they have seen it for themselves.
As Emma Archer says of her first day out with the Pytchley: "It was so nice to be part of something that traditional and inherently British. I just felt so proud to be part of it." Flora Watkins is news editor of 'Horse & Hound'.