Wildlife charity the RSPB could face a big fine after chopping down an estimated 100,000 trees without a licence.
The RSPB appears to have broken the law when it cleared almost 100 acres of Highland forest despite failing to renew its logging licence.
Work is being carried out as part of a project at Forsinard Flows reserve, Sutherland, where the RSPB is restoring bog and peatland to boost bird life.
The Forestry Commission has investigated the case and is shortly expected to reveal whether it will use its power to prosecute the RSPB.
The charity could be fined £2,500 or twice the value of each felled tree, whichever is greater.
Trees are planted at a density of around 2,500 per hectare and estimated to be worth around £45 each – giving a potential fine in the region of £9million.
The RSPB could also be ordered to restore the felled trees as a result of what it admits was an “administrative error”.
The RSPB has Forestry Commission support for the clearance but the work was suspended in March when it was discovered the felling licence had not been renewed.
Drew Graham, a sub-contractor who carried out the felling, said: “We had seen paperwork at the start and it was all in place. I think there’s been a lapse of people dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s rather than malicious wrongdoing.”
A spokesman for the RSPB said: “We’re waiting to hear from Forestry Commission Scotland as to what the investigations find.
“The total area felled during the period of the lapsed licence was only about 40 hectares.
“Ultimately the responsibility falls to ourselves, to an administrative oversight. We’ve not resumed felling because it is the breeding season for the birds.
“All of our operations up there support a huge amount of local jobs. We’ve been active up there for years. It’s been about restoration of the blanket bog habitat.”
The spokesman said they had since been issued with a new licence.
A spokesman for Forestry Commission Scotland said: “We have concluded our investigation and are in the process of finalising our response.
“We will inform those involved shortly and until then, we are not in a position to say any more.”
The charity was given a £4.5million grant by the Heritage Lottery to help fund the Forsinard project last year.