THE UK’S biggest bird conservation charity has escaped a fine of at least £30,000 – despite illegally chopping down thousands of trees.
The RSPB cut down 46 hectares of trees in Forsinard, Sutherland, containing an estimated 40,000 trees, to help create a wetland.
But the work was carried out after their licence had expired, according to a lengthy investigation carried out by the Forestry Commission.
The RSPB faced a fine of twice the £15,636 value of the felled trees
But the Crown Office has now decided not to prosecute the RSPB because to do so was “not in the public interest”.
The decision was today branded “disgraceful” by campaigners who have been fighting against the Forsinard Flows reserve.
The RSPB’s reserve is the UK’s biggest nature reserve and the work is part of a five-year project meant to restore bogland habitat.
The charity claims that as well as attracting a greater diversity of bird species the bogland would be generally good for the environment.
But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information from the Forestry Commission prove that the RSPB carried out felling without a licence. The two-year licence expired in December 2014 but contractors for the RSPB carried on working until March last year.
The Forestry Commission stated: “Due to the scale of the unauthorised felling we submitted a report to the Procurator Fiscal.
“They determine if taking a prosecution forward is in the public interest. In this case, the Procurator Fiscal decided prosecution was unwarranted.”
Scottish Conservative environment spokesman Jamie McGrigor said it was a “farce” that the RSPB had escaped a fine.
He said: “The Forsinard Flows are a very important site and I have consistently supported efforts to restore bog and peatlands there and elsewhere across the Highlands and Islands.
“It’s a farce that most other organisations would be hit by a hefty fee in cutting down trees without a licence but the RSPB seem to have got away scot-free.
“I am surprised that an organisation as experienced and prestigious has failed to follow due process and renew its logging licence in this instance and I welcome the fact that FCS is investigating this as clearly a level playing field should apply to all organisations involved in tree felling, including the RSPB.”
A spokesperson for Forsinard Says No, which opposes the scheme claiming it will be an eyesore and attract too many visitors, said: “It’s utterly disgraceful.
“How can they claim it’s not in the public interest when they can prosecute a farmer in Aberdeenshire for 2,000 trees?
“The first thing in my mind is, who’s protecting them? They get away Scot-free. They get a letter telling them not to do it again.”
The spokesperson added: “It sets a precedent for anyone else to go and cut down trees. They can go into court and say: “Well, the RSPB got away with it.”
“If you can’t fine someone give them a sentence they won’t like. Make them replant them. They got away with a slap on the wrist.”
A source within the private forestry industry said: “The RSPB are in receipt of public money – they should know what they’re doing.
“It makes you wonder whether it would be so lenient if it were a private indivudual or company if the same standards would be imposed.”
In December last year, farmer Kerry MacKenzie was fined £2,500 for chopping down 2,000 trees without a licence at Drumligair Farm, Newmachar.
Mr MacKenzie had claimed the trees were not worth anything, but was prosecuted on the basis that the Forestry Commission had valued them at around £11,000.
A Forestry Commission Scotland spokesman said: “We take a very serious view of any offence against the felling requirements of the Forestry Act.
“In line with normal practice when there is an unauthorised felling of this scale and significance, a thorough report was produced and submitted to the Procurator Fiscal.
“It is for the Procurator Fiscal to decide whether or not to take forward any prosecution and in this case they decided not to do so.
“We have issued formal warning letters to the parties involved and met senior staff from both RSPB and Tilhill to ensure their procedures are revised to avoid such incidents in the future.”
A Crown Office spokesman said: “The Procurator Fiscal deals with every case on its own individual facts and circumstances.
“Following a full and careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of this case, including a number of mitigating circumstances, the Procurator Fiscal decided that there should be no criminal proceedings at this time.
“The Crown reserves the right to proceed in the future.”
RSPB spokesman Dr Pete Mayhew said, “We welcome the decision by the Procurator Fiscal and look forward to moving ahead with our important peatland restoration work under a Forest Plan agreed with Forestry Commission Scotland.
“To ensure that there is no repetition of this unfortunate incident, we have undertaken a complete and thorough review of our operating procedures and strengthened them significantly so that we can focus on our work restoring the internationally important peatlands of the Flow Country.
“In addition our site management protocols have changed across the UK, with additional training now being undertaken at any sites where trees occur and require management. For clarity, we now ensure that all forestry and felling contracts have the appropriate licences attached, with these signed off by the senior site manager and the regional reserves manager.
“This issue has been reported to our trustees, who have been kept informed every step of the way. We will report back to them regularly, demonstrating that our training is kept up to date and embedded into all of our work going forward.”