There is no imminent prospect of a parliamentary vote on repealing the hunting ban, a Cabinet minister has signalled.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson appeared to rule out bringing the issue before the Commons next year.
Mr Paterson, a keen supporter of country sports including hunting, told the Daily Telegraph: "There's only a point having a vote if you're going to win.
"At the moment, it would not be my proposal to bring forward a vote we were going to lose. There needs to be more work done on Members of Parliament."
He went on: "It is our clear intention to have a free vote but we need to choose an appropriate moment."
The comments emerged as an estimated 300 Boxing Day hunts gather up and down the country for the busiest day of the season.
They will go ahead despite the ban on hunting with dogs that was passed under Labour in 2005.
Campaigners say enforcing the restriction wastes police time, and suggest some officers turn a blind eye to breaches of the law.
But David Cameron has been accused of dragging his heels over acting on the coalition agreement promise of a free vote on overturning the ban.
Many Tories would support repeal, but most Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still in favour of the ban.
Animal welfare charities, including the RSPCA , have commissioned research which suggests that only 15% of people want to scrap the ban.
But the Countryside Alliance says it has seen no slackening of support for hunting in recent years.
For Labour, shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said there was no public support for ending the hunting ban.
"Most people back Labour's ban on hunting wild animals with dogs and accept there is no place for animal cruelty in a civilised society," she said.
"People are worried about their incomes falling, prices rising and losing their jobs, yet this out of touch Tory-led Government wants to bring back hunting.
"After the recent high profile conviction of members of the Prime Minister's hunt, I hope that hunts will respect the law this year."
A Defra spokesperson said: "The coalition Government pledged to put forward a motion to allow a free vote on the Hunting Act.
"This will take place at an appropriate time and if Parliament were to vote in favour of repeal, the Government would introduce a Repeal Bill in the House of Parliament in due course."