Twitchers plan to ruffle feathers with new militant image

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The cozy binoculars and cagoules image of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is on its way out. Britain's sixth-largest charity wants to relaunch itself as a more militant and campaigning environmental organisation embracing younger supporters.

''People think of us as a slightly cuddly birdwatching club,'' said its public affairs officer, Paul Lewis. ''But we want to be seen for what we are, a campaigning environmental organisation.''

With 967,000 members and plans to sign up its millionth this year, the society is a larger and wealthier organisation than the UK arms of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. It has a country house headquarters in Bedfordshire, huge areas of reserves and more than 900 staff around the country. The smaller green organisations might envy these assets, but they have one thing the RSPB is chasing - a younger supporter base of 25- to 40-year- olds.

''We're trying to give the RSPB a harder, younger edge," said Robert Tansey, strategic planner of the society's advertising agency Publicis, which yesterday unveiled a new, harder edged poster campaign. ''The current membership tends to be slightly right of centre, over 50 and rather blue stocking.''

Even the society's celebrity members tend to be getting on a bit. Liam Gallagher was a member of the society's Young Ornithologist Club, but is not among the society's adult members. Damon Albarn of Blur is a birdwatcher too, but the society does not have him down as a member.

Barbara Young, the organisation's chief executive, emphasises that the RSPB's roots are in campaigning: ''We were founded to take on the feather trade for women's hats in the last century.'' These days it campaigns on issues as diverse as reforming the EU's Common Agricultural Policy to make it more wildlife-friendly; overfishing in the North Sea; and stopping water companies and farmers taking excessive quantities of water from rivers and aquifers. It has even commissioned a study on eco-taxation; how the cost of car tax discs should be varied according to how much pollution a car produces. But all these campaigns have the ultimate common theme of conserving wildlife, including the birds.

Publicis has built a 10ft-wide bird's nest made of barbed wire in Norwich for the launch of the campaign. It plans a nation-wide poster campaign based on this striking image, which symbolises humanity's threats to many of our native species. Even the sparrow's population has halved in two decades, probably on account of changes in farming practices.

''Our research has found that people in their late twenties and thirties think a lot more about the environment because they are starting to have children,'' said Mr Tansey. ''We're targeting them with the nest idea because it plugs into their own 'nesting' instincts.''

The RSPB is also conducting a national direct-mailing recruitment campaign, to try to attract its one millionth member.

The charity already receives pounds 24m a year in donations, making it Britain's sixth-wealthiest charity.

Friends of the feathered

Members of the RSPB include: Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Sir David Attenborough, the television game show host Bob Holness, Joanna Lumley, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard Briers, Bill Oddie, Vic Reeves, Julian Pettifer, Lisa Goddard and David Suchet.