If I am honest with myself, I recognise the question, in this form, as a real one. The little troupe of hardened followers, passing over the hill in their frock coats, top hats and woollen breaches, astride polished horses which bob in the foam of hounds like dolphins in the surf, is like a visitation of ghosts, a vision of antique pageantry, as unconnected to modern life as the service of the Prayer Book (still whispered each Sunday in our local church), as the Lord Chancellor's wig and gaiters which so irritate Lord Irvine, or as some Salvation Army band, playing forgotten hymn-tunes on a cold, unvisited pier.
There is truth in that perception, but it is not the whole truth. To be part of the hunt is to know that it is no spectral procession, but a living organism, in which three species - carnivore, herbivore and omnivore - work towards a result which no one could achieve alone. To sit astride an eager horse, watching the hounds as they work through the gorse, their noses to the ground, their ears cocked to the huntsman's voice, to feel the tremors of anticipation in the horse's limbs, and to follow the movement of his eyes and ears as he plots his future course across the valley: all this is not merely indescribably beautiful; it is a revelation of the natural world.
Those who have hunted know what a horse really is - namely, an inextricable part of the herd, whose intelligence, instinct and desire are bound up with a collective life and movement. Those who have hunted know also what a dog is - namely, an inextricable part of the pack, whose needs and interests are determined by the common project. Our pets are miserable and incomplete by comparison.
And those who have hunted know too what human beings are - not what they are on the surface, but what they are deep down, when the accretions of indolence are wiped away, and the hunter-gatherer is again revealed.
It is at this level - the level of species life - that the co-operation between hound, horse and human is achieved. And in taking part in it, you feel a wholly new and, for me, uncanny sympathy for other species: a sympathy for their normal and collective life, free from the sentimentality and fantasy that blights our love for our captive favourites, a sympathy which is open, realistic and founded in a deep sense of equality.
This sympathy does not extend only to horse and hound: it also embraces the fox - a point which the critics of hunting find hard to understand, but which ought to be known to every angler, and to everyone who has studied the life of hunter-gatherers. Those tribes who live by hunting and gathering regard their quarry with a religious respect. The hunted animal is pursued as an individual. But the hunted species is elevated to divine status as the totem, and a kind of mystical union of the tribe with its totem seals the pact between them for ever.
Something of this relationship is recaptured in the field today. Even in modern conditions, the experience of the hunter involves an archaic union of opposites - absolute antagonism between individuals resolved through a mystical identity of species. By pursuing the individual and worshipping the species, the hunter guarantees the eternal recurrence of his prey.
I am persuaded that this atavistic species-bond is of far greater benefit to wildlife than any amount of sentimental pity. Not that the hunter is without pity, any more than the farmer is without pity for the pig which he sends to slaughter. But, like the farmer, the hunter knows that pity favours the individual, whereas it is the species that needs our protection.
Without hunting we should lose the most lively of our interests in wild animals, the interest that does most to preserve those species, such as the fox and the deer, whose predations would otherwise threaten their survival.
Many people believe hunting to be more cruel than the alternative methods of control. From what I have read, and from my own experience, shooting and trapping offer a fate far worse than the instant death that is administered by a pack of hounds. But the argument is surrounded by so great a cloud of hypocrisy that it is probably fruitless to engage with it. People who eat broiler chickens that have lived all their days in agony, battery pigs that have gone half demented to the slaughter house, and baby fish that have been torn from the sea in nets that leave a lifeless waste behind them can hardly claim to live on morally respectable terms with the animal kingdom.
Nor can those who keep domestic cats - responsible each year for 500 million painful deaths in this country - or those who believe that their pet rabbits and guinea pigs, eking out their days in solitary confinement, are made happy by the sentimental love that enhances their daily torment with unwanted cuddles. If such people can nevertheless pontificate about cruelty, with the immovable self-righteousness that is so familiar a feature of the recent campaigns for animal "rights", it is clear that no amount of rational argument will ever weigh with them.
This is not to say that the "antis" don't have a point. The death of a wild animal is terrible. But it is also inevitable. The best that we can do is to ensure that the life which is purchased by this death is not also blighted by it. That is why, when all is said and done, it is right to go fishing with a line and wrong to go fishing with a drift-net, why it is right to hunt foxes with hounds, who single out the individual and leave the species, and wrong to put down traps or poison.
The question of our duties to the animal kingdom has only recently been posed, and at a time when the threat of extinction lies over so many beautiful species. The animals are victims of human greed and profligacy. We feel, as we ought to feel, guilty for our callous disregard towards their lives and habitats. We know that we lie under the greatest obligation towards them, and that first among our duties is to save them from extinction at our hands. That is why we must legislate to protect them.
But such considerations seem hardly to weigh with those - including most Labour backbenchers - who are currently agitating for a ban on hunting. On the contrary, the opponents of the sport are so convinced that hunting is immoral in itself that no amount of argument will dissuade them from their purpose. I have thought long and hard about this question, and I am convinced that hunting, properly conducted, is not immoral at all. I don't expect others to agree with me. But I do expect them to tolerate my views, just as I tolerate the erroneous views of those who think it morally permissible to keep rabbits in cages, or to eat battery pigs.
When John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville warned against the "tyranny of the majority", their democratic critics were sceptical. Surely, they argued, people are too jealous of their own freedom to want to restrict the freedom of their neighbours? But there has been a sensible decline in political culture since the days of Mill and de Tocqueville, not least among our elected representatives. The longstanding principles of constitutional government - that moral sentiment is an insufficient ground for legislation and that where there is substantial moral disagreement the law should not take sides - are in danger of being disregarded. And when they are disregarded, social peace is at an end.
Roger Scruton's On Hunting is published by Yellow Jersey PressReuse content