Sustainability on the Golf Course – Preserving the British Countryside
The 12 hole at Turton set amongst Heath & Moor Habitat
Following on from his achievement at the Golf Environment Awards last year, Antony Wainwright, winner of the Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year award, has written on the critical role golf courses have to play in the conservation and preservation of the British countryside.
Winning the 2011 Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year award has got to be my greatest professional achievement to date and I am honored and proud to have received this accolade from the STRI as part of the 2011 Golf Environment Awards. The awards run annually and offer great motivation to greenkeepers, including me, up and down the British Isles to promote sustainable development and environmental stewardship on their golf course whilst contributing towards the conservation of our natural heritage. During the 6 years here at Turton Golf Course, conservation and enhancement of our out-of-play natural habitats has been my main focus as they offer refuge for native wildlife, whilst playing a vital role in the character of the course. My fascination with improving these habitats stems from 30 years of learning about nature, especially birds, and observing the gradual decline of some of our once common species. In fact, I once successfully campaigned against expansion of a local golf course long before I came to work in the field – if only I had known then what I know now about what golf can offer to improve our countryside and ultimately, the environment.
Turton Golf Course is situated on the southern slopes of Turton Heights above the town of Bolton and offers stunning panoramic views of the town below and surrounding hills, including five counties. In fact, Bob Taylor, from the STRI who came to judge our efforts commented of what a gem of a course this is up in the middle of nowhere and I could tell he was genuinely impressed with the views alone. Nine of the holes were constructed in 1908 with the further nine completed in 1996, which has resulted in the course having a distinct difference between old and new areas where more mature plantations and moorland grasses predominate at the older holes. The age of a golf course is an important factor in determining its value for wildlife as ecological value increases with age due to the maturity of wildlife habitats. Although Turton Golf Course is a predominantly ‘moorland course’ there are a few holes that could be considered ‘parkland’ especially on the lower reaches of the course. The total area of the course 56 hectares of which there are 20 hectares of prime habitats such as heath, moor, beech woodland, acid grassland and 5 ponds. These habitats form a substantial part of the course and it is these which I have managed over the last few years that have no doubt helped the club to offer something different for golfers to enjoy – a thriving wildlife community that contributes to improved aesthetics, appearance and a better playing experience to our members and visitors alike.
All I have done is to ‘work with the land’ we have to maximise the potential for wildlife and therefore provide a course that blends in with the surrounding environment. This ranged from various management strategies within specific areas of the course to preserve and enhance our habitats. One project was to maintain our already abundant heather on the course and try to encourage new heather regeneration in key areas, such as carries and the course boundaries. Admittedly, this was quite easy in some areas as there were individual heather plants trying to grow in areas that were intensively managed, showing that there is a healthy heather seed bank within our soil. All we did here was to leave these areas to grow and, hey presto, we now have new areas of heather. Other areas weren’t so easy due to a very healthy sward of moorland grass species, so we trialed a small area where we removed the turf to the point where the humus layer was revealed, hence exposing the seed bank. Heather has started to colonise these areas now, two years on, showing that the method works albeit very slowly.
Another key habitat present within our boundaries is ‘lowland dry acid grassland’ which hosts a thriving wildflower community and has largely disappeared from our countryside. Management of this habitat required strimming of vegetation and subsequent removal of the clippings so as not to increase fertility of the soil here. Timing is imperative so as to not impact upon the invertebrate and flower populations and work commenced during the autumn, after the first frost, when most of the invertebrates had retreated away from the cold and vegetation growth had ceased. Strips of vegetation were strimmed, about 3 meters wide, leaving a mosaic of strimmed and unstrimmed areas so as not to completely remove the vegetation and allow somewhere for creatures to reside. The strimmed areas are rotated annually in such a way that the whole of the acid grassland receives this treatment over a period of three years before we start it all over again. This management removes fertility from the soil thus preserving this very important habitat that is full of colour throughout the summer.
Heathland habitat is another important habitat in Britain, which, as with most other habitats, has decreased dramatically over the past century. Luckily, at Turton we have a considerable amount which forms that main out-of-play habitat on the course. It is home to heather, bilberry and gorse that in turn provide food and shelter for a host of birds, mammals and insects. Deer, badger, weasel, stonechat, grasshopper warbler and barn owl are just a few species which inhabit the heath and without proper management would revert to woodland and the heath would be lost. However, management of the heath is not quite as time consuming as it would first appear as we only need the scrub and tree saplings to be kept in check. Here we removed some, not all, of the older hawthorne and mountain ash and simply snipped any tree saplings. This management helps prevent shading of the vegetation below therefore allowing heath species to thrive. Now all the largest trees and shrubs have been removed it is simply just a walk through the area once a year to clear any new saplings.
Providing nestboxes for birds is another measure we have taken to ensure a healthier population of birds on a golf course that has a limited availability of nestholes in which to raise their young. Boxes have been placed on the course for blue, great & coal tit and robins with further plans for a barn owl, tawny owl, kestrel and nuthatch boxes. We have had a major success from 18 boxes erected with at least 70 birds reared in 10 of them during 2010 and 2011. Little Owl has also bred successfully for a number of years now in a cavity of the clubhouse cheering those up who are lucky enough to see them during the early morning.
Add to the above a comprehensive pond management scheme, gorse planting scheme, himalayan balsam control, log pile creation, grass clipping management and a bat & bird box scheme amongst others, we have a complete management plan that recognises the need to think about the ecology on our course. This is all documented and planned for in a full ecological appraisal I wrote for the club which describes – what do we have at the club in terms of wildlife habitats? And what do we have to do in order to preserve or enhance these areas? So if you are thinking of going down the environmental road in your future greenkeeping career then I think you’re half way there if you can answer these two questions.
Recognising the importance of some of the habitats we have, I also worked with Lancashire County Council to get them the official title of Lancashire Heritage Site/Biological Heritage Site (BHS). There are now 10 hectares of our 56 hectare course that have received this designation whereby management regimes described above have been initiated. Local authorities are required to identify and provide for the protection and enhancement of the natural heritage within their areas and so promote the BHS scheme. As part of their planning function, they have a responsibility to take account of sites of significant nature conservation value.
All of the above has helped me gain this fantastic award from the STRI but I wish to thank a few individuals who have made this possible. First, thanks must go to the head greenkeeper, Chris Westwood, who really helped to get the ball rolling by convincing the greens committee to adopt environmental policy and allow me to execute a strategy to improve the ecological value of the course. Without him, I simply wouldn’t have been able to advance my experience of golf course ecology. Thanks also goes to the greens chairman, John O’Hara and the whole team up here at Turton who have supported and adopted new environmental initiatives. Bob Taylor and the whole environmental department of the STRI deserve special thanks for promoting the awards and paving the way for a more sustainable golf and finally, the sponsors – greenkeeping, golf monthly, campeys, county turf, everris, syngenta & ransomes/jacobsen, for whom without the environmental awards would not even happen.
Finally, I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that there has never been a more important time to focus on ecology and to minimise the carbon footprint we leave for our children to inherit. Far too much valuable land which has provided natural habitats for native British flora and fauna since time in memorial has been lost to us – 97% of England’s traditional wild flower grasslands have disappeared for example. The result is a comprehensive list of various species of flowers, plants, animals, birds, insects and other organisms whose numbers are in a steep decline. I feel extremely lucky to operate within the golf industry and one of the reasons why is that British golf courses have the potential play critical role in preserving and enhancing Britain’s countryside. No other industry, except maybe the management of nature reserves, has the opportunity to directly impact upon the state of the countryside like golf has. Eventually, with the STRI motivating more and more greenkeepers, I see golf courses becoming havens for wildlife within the British countryside and shedding the public conception that golf courses are detrimental to the countryside and the environment.