'BATTERY cages really get me because, okay, I'm not a chicken, but I anthropomorphise the chickens. They've got emotions like we have. Laboratory animals as well - I can't bear that. I don't want to be in my nice house just enjoying myself while there's such cruelty going on.'

At 15, Natalie Acton is already a committed campaigner for animal rights. Her bedroom at home in Norwich contains a filing cabinet crammed with leaflets and the walls are covered with anti-fur-coat posters.

As far as the public is concerned, the green boom of the late Eighties appears to be waning fast. Today, a cynical four in 10 adults believe that environmental issues are used as an excuse to boost prices. The Green Party's membership has more than halved since 1990. Lynx, the anti-fur campaigning group, went into liquidation earlier this year after a libel case. More than four people in 10 could not care less if their shampoo has been animal- tested. Ark and Ecover products are being nudged off the supermarket shelves by cheaper brands.

Yet among many teenagers animal rights remain as emotive a crusade as ever, and young people continue to flock to organisations that promote them. Last weekend, 15-year-old Thomas Worby was run over and killed at his first hunt sabotage demonstration. Is the idealism that leads teenagers to spend hours canvassing, leafleting and demonstrating misplaced - even exploited by the organisations who rely on their support?

Natalie is studying for 10 GCSEs and wants a career working for 'a charity like Oxfam'. She became vegetarian when she was only eight. 'I'd always really liked animals and it dawned on me that was what I was eating.'

She is a tireless member of Respect for Animals, a group which carries on Lynx's campaigns, and local animal rights groups in Norwich. 'I spend five hours on a Saturday doing street collecting, or petitioning in the city. In the evenings I go twice a week to the office and write letters or answer the phone.'

She denies any suggestion that she is being exploited, emotionally or otherwise. 'My parents do worry that on Saturdays I should be doing my homework. But I say, well, I could be going out taking drugs, at least I'm not out shoplifting.'

By the time she left her old school, six of her friends were vegetarian too - 'not because I'd converted them, but because they'd thought about it because I'd thought about it'.

Natalie started a branch of Respect for Animals at her school, which proved controversial. 'I showed a video - there's not very much gore in it, but people were shocked and a couple of parents wrote saying 'This shouldn't be allowed.' I think of all the violence that's on TV, and the truth isn't allowed to be shown - we can't be blinkered through life.' Natalie is convinced her efforts are worthwhile. 'It's something where young people can make a difference. It's ironic - grown-ups make the problems, and it's us who are having to rectify them.'

Ben Kent, 15, from Colchester, has been a member of the Vegetarian Society since he was 10. 'I got quite a bit of teasing at first, but I didn't like animals being killed. I don't think animals were put on the earth to eat, they're here to live their lives like us. Older people are set in their ways and don't want to change, but I wouldn't ever go back to being a meat eater.

'These issues are avoided in schools because they're gory, but if it's shocking then that's what will turn people away from meat. I know people whose parents won't let them be vegetarian - well, I think they should respect other people's points of view.'

Samantha Cameron, 16, from north London, became vegetarian two years ago. She joined the RSPCA and Animal Aid, a group which campaigns against factory farming, vivisection, zoos, circuses and hunting. 'We have fundraising events at school, we go leafleting, and we're going to show the new Animal Aid video. I've done talks on vivisection in English classes. Animals can't speak for themselves, someone's got to speak for them. It's the next generation that ends up with all the problems in the world, so we have to do something about it.'

The Vegetarian Society, Animal Aid, the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Hunt Saboteurs Association - all of these groups, from the most controversial to the most innocuous, hotly deny any deliberate attempts to recruit teenagers. The teenagers, they say, come to them. 'We don't stand outside the school gates handing out leaflets,' says Sean McElherron of the Vegetarian Society. 'But there is a huge demand from schools themselves. Last year we had 15 people doing talks, this year we have nearly 100.' Of the society's 20,000 members, 5,000 are under 18; girls outnumber boys by two to one. 'Girls are more compassionate,' says Sean. 'Meat is seen as macho. The New Man syndrome hasn't filtered down to the middle teens. Boys don't like to cry and feel sorry for animals.' Vegetarian Society leaflets include Space Sheep and Astro Pig Talk About Nutrition.

Ian Green, of Animal Aid, says: 'We don't actively recruit in schools, but the drug companies and the meat people send glossy information packs and so we decided to try and get our video into all secondary schools.' Animal Aid has 5,000 youth members. 'It may be a cliche, but young people are the future, and we get our most encouraging results from them. We receive 100 requests for project information every day.'

The Hunt Saboteurs Association is particularly keen to play down its younger members following controversy last week over their recruitment methods, and allegations of links with neo-Nazi groups. 'The last thing we want is to make people think we're a bunch of teenagers,' claims a spokesman. 'We only allow young sabs who have proved they are responsible to come along with their parents' permission - though out in the open it can be difficult to control who turns up. We don't have any youth branch at all.'

The BUAV sends no direct-mail material to under-16s. 'We only deal on a responsive level - we send specific packs for projects. We get a lot of interest from young girls - we don't want to discourage them but we have to be careful how we use that support,' explains Steve McIver, campaigns manager. 'One could hit them very hard indeed and cause a lot of problems for the less balanced and less mature. But we don't activate under-16s.'

Teachers' attitudes to pupils who campaign for animals are varied. No marks are deducted at GCSE level for students who do not want to take part in biology lesson dissections, but according to Natalie it can be difficult to refuse. 'Some teachers say, 'Right, who's going to be first?' as if you're really big if you can cut up a rat. I think a lot of boys who might be sympathetic wouldn't want to be seen as wimps.'

James Hall, a London history and current affairs teacher, says: 'I don't feel animal rights should be prioritised at school when human rights are in such a deplorable state. There is little enough time for essentials, let alone trendy extras. I don't think that the plight of chickens should be brought into the classroom ahead of, say, the plight of the Bosnians, which is woefully poorly understood by the majority of teenagers. I am not totally unsympathetic, I do buy free range eggs, but I don't think it's an issue for schools.'

GCSE pupils can choose animal rights as a project topic, but there is no compulsory work on the subject. Even sympathetic teachers believe it would be difficult to introduce. A Birmingham science teacher, Anita Rumfeld, says: 'I think these issues should be covered in schools, but the national curriculum is packed as it is.'

Parents' reactions also vary. Patricia Miller's 14-year-old daughter is vegetarian. 'It drives me mad to see Leila picking at a vegetable burger while the rest of us are eating roast beef, but the worst aspect is the lecturing. When you're cooking a chicken, you don't want someone reciting its miserable life history over your shoulder.' She has found her daughter's conversion disruptive. 'I yearn for the days when we could all sit down to bacon and sausages for breakfast without a martyred little face peeking over a bowl of cornflakes. People have always eaten meat, it's perfectly natural, and I wish that Leila's friends had never taken it upon themselves to supposedly enlighten her about where it comes from.'

Natalie's mother, Stella Acton, has cut back on meat herself. 'In fact I feel much healthier,' she says. 'Our main worry was Natalie's schoolwork - we said 'Change the world, but get your GCSEs first'. Luckily she's sensible enough to cut down her social life - if there is a party she goes, but she cuts out the aimless hanging around the town, and I would rather she was doing what she does.

'She is a balanced person, she doesn't antagonise the rest of the family. She had a bit of a sob when we had turkey at Christmas, but she didn't go on about it. We've promised to review the situation next year.'

(Photograph omitted)