In March 2015 tree-felling operations at Dyke and Forsinain plantations in the Flow Country were suspended in order to establish up-to-date tree-felling licences. This followed the discovery that licences for felling at Dyke lapsed on December 21 2014 when felling was ongoing after this date.
In addition a consultation to obtain a licence for felling operations at Forsinain had been undertaken, though this had not been concluded and the licence was never secured for the felling that was carried out. Once we discovered our administrative error, we ceased all forestry operations until new licences were granted later in the year.
Following a referral to the Procurator Fiscal by Forestry Commission Scotland it has now been decided that no further action should take place.
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."
Dr Mayhew added: "The removal of conifer plantations on deep peatland from the Flow Country has been a priority of the Government and its agencies for many years, as it has been for RSPB Scotland. Since the mid-1990's over 2,000 hectares of conifers have been felled and restored to blanket bog. Similar work has been carried out by Forestry Commission Scotland and private landowners.
"RSPB Scotland is proud of its record in removing thousands of inappropriately planted trees over the last two decades and we deeply regret that, in this instance, felling took place without the proper documentation in place."
A summary of the investigation is published on the Forestry Commission Scotland website here: http://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/supporting/grants-and-regulations/felling-licences/penalties
Timeline: In December 2012 RSPB Scotland was issued with a felling license by Forestry Commission Scotland to remove non- native conifer plantations from areas of deep peatland known as Dyke plantation. The plantation was being removed to restore blanket bog to benefit wildlife and peatland resources. Unfortunately, due to an oversight, felling continued after the license expired on 21 December 2014, but this was halted immediately when it was drawn to RSPB Scotland's attention. An application was made for a new license which was granted on 6 April 2015, with a new forest plan covering this and a wider area granted on 28 September 2015. The new forest plan also covers the smaller Forsinain plantation where a small amount of felling had taken place earlier without a felling licence. FCS investigated this lapse and made a report to the Procurator Fiscal. RSPB Scotland also conducted an internal review to ensure our processes prevent any similar oversight from occurring in the future.
Peatland Restoration: The restoration of degraded peatlands is a priority of the Scottish Government's SRDP Agri-Environment Climate Scheme 2014-20 and is highlighted in Scottish Natural Heritage's "Scotland's National Peatland Plan. The removal of the plantation and the restoration of the blanket bog on which it was planted forms part of the Peatlands Partnership's Flows to the Future project which runs until September 2019. For more on the project please see: www.flowstothefuture.co.uk
How will RSPB ensure that this never happens again? There has been a thorough review of RSPB process to ensure that there will be no repetition in future. The actions are: The RSPB Code of Practice has been revised. Sign off of felling activities must in future be signed off by a senior RSPB manager (Regional Reserves Manager) as well as the Site Manager concerned. When a felling contract is signed by the RSPB, an up-to-date felling licence must also be available. RSPB's mapping database will automatically flag up sites in advance of the expiry of felling licences to ensure that they are not allowed to lapse.