Storm surges, abnormally high tides, rising sea levels and the continual evolution of our coastlines pose a threat to some of our most iconic courses – the links, which often contain areas that lie very close to or even below sea level. Every listing of the world’s top courses contains its fair share of links, but are they an endangered species? Climate change forecasts would suggest so, and there are instances where links holes have had to be re-designed to accommodate changes in the coastal landscape. But there are also examples where efforts have been taken to preserve our links and the story of St Andrews reflects the advancement of coastal protection techniques.
The famous West Sands and the area at the far end of the Old and Jubilee courses, known as the Out Head sand dunes where the long beach meets the Eden Estuary, are popular visitor destinations. The estuary, mudflats and sandbanks that lead up to the high water mark in this area enjoy international protection for their wintering birds through Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar Site designations.“
The historic, recreational and economic value of St Andrews Links means that there is a need to protect these areas.
The soft dunes along West Sands beach and the Out Head area have always protected the land from the forces of the sea but are becoming more vulnerable due to changing climatic conditions, future projected sea level rises and potential increases in extreme weather events.
The historic, recreational and economic value of St Andrews Links means that there is a need to protect these areas. Following considerable research, St Andrews Links Trust in partnership with Fife Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust has taken various coastal protection measures. These have required permissions under the Environmental Impact (Scotland) Regulations and licenses under the Control of Pollution Act (COPA) and the Food and Environment Protection Act (FEPA), which are enforced by Marine Scotland and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
The Eden Estuary Project
In 2001, 100 metres of hard defenses were constructed along the eroding dunes at the end of the Jubilee course. This consisted of a line of contoured sloping gabions, which are large metal baskets filled with rocks. These stabilise the dunes and stop the sand from being eroded away by absorbing the energy of the incoming sea.
This was followed further along the coastline with a revised approach. This beach nourishment project buried the installed gabions and built a new 300 metre dune along the remaining soft dune system to the north of the new gabions. Sand was excavated from a part of the sand flats to the north and transported to the dunes by low ground pressure trucks and shaped by bulldozers. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process ensured that mitigation measures were put in place so there was no significant disturbance to the breeding bird sites, mudflats, sand flat, sand dune and saltmarsh habitats and the Harbour seals that visit the Estuary and bask on the sand banks at low tide. Permission for further sand recharge work was given in 2008 to ensure the area continues to be effective in combating the dune erosion.
Additional protection of the sand dunes and sand recharge area was achieved through a softer coastal engineering approach that included chestnut paling fences and marram and sea lyme grass planting. The grass acts as a natural dune stabiliser by trapping and binding sand with their roots and vegetative growth, which also reduce the loss of sand through wind erosion.
In the past 3 years the Links Trust has also worked with the groups mentioned above (and partially funded) the protective measures which have been put in place on the West Sands itself. This has involved the transfer of sand under license to repair “blow outs” in the dunes caused by storms and high tides and transplanting marram and sea lyme grasses to stabilise the sand. The links Trust has also persuaded the Local Authority to stop removing seaweed from the beach and to use chestnut fencing to prevent people and animals from eroding the dunes through foot traffic. Even in the short time these actions have been implemented there has been a marked increase in the sand build–up along the fence line and new embryo dunes starting to form.
St Andrews Links Trust has also assisted the University of St Andrews, financially and by providing manpower, in transplanting salt marsh grasses along the coastline of the Estuary.
Those less fortunate
The links at St Andrews have great conservation value, aside from the golf. This is why notable efforts are being made to preserve the landscape, but not all links are as fortunate and many are left to the ravages of nature with little support from the authorities. At a 2000 conference organised by The R&A in St Andrews, Professor John Pethick, a much respected authority on marine science, concluded a session on coastal erosion by suggesting that we should not interfere with the natural process of dune migration and that links golf should respond to this challenge by becoming a more random game, with course layouts moving with the dunes. Whilst this approach may appeal to those who hark back to the earliest days of golf, it may not prove to be a practical proposition for those currently managing links with well-established boundaries and neighbours.