I’ve been involved in environmental aspects on golf courses for over 20 years, and one of the key things which I learnt very early on is how important it is for golf clubs to engage effectively with politicians and environmental bodies. The people who ultimately make decisions on whether new developments will be allowed, on what regulations are applied to use and management of water and chemicals, and on the way that golf is perceived by the people who live around golf courses, rarely have any great knowledge or understanding about the industry, and will often have jaundiced or misinformed views on it. And the best way to overcome this is to engage directly with politicians, environmental bodies and local community groups, to show them that golf can be, and often is, ecologically and environmentally beneficial.“
Many golf courses retain significant areas of high quality and well managed habitat.
My experience is that golf is one of those activities which many professional and voluntary ecologists see as bad. They think that golf courses are over-managed and manicured, use far too much water and chemicals, and are ecological deserts. I know that this is frequently not the case, and that many golf courses(especially in the UK- where most of my experience comes from) retain significant areas of high quality and well managed habitat, often supporting many rare and vulnerable species. Indeed, many are of such high quality that they have been designated as UK or European protected areas for wildlife. I also know from my experience that, in spite of this, there are still environmentalists who think that the golf courses which have safeguarded these sites for over a century should be removed, so that they can be returned to a “natural” state. They conveniently overlook the fact that if a golf course had not been established the habitat which still exists would long ago have been lost to housing, caravan parks or coastal development.
But attitudes like this can be changed, and golf is getting much better at doing this. The key is to make sure you know what ecological or environmental features exist on your golf course, understand their significance, and take appropriate action to maintain them, and if possible enhance them. Once you have this information, and are confident that you are doing the right things, it’s relatively easy to show local, regional and national decision makers how important your contribution is. But what’s the best way to go about this?
Start with your own staff. Formal Greenkeeper training now has a substantial content related to environmental and ecological issues, and the course management team will have considerable knowledge about what is on the property. Many golf club members are keen amateur naturalists, and it’s always worth finding out who they are. You are likely to find some with good knowledge of birds, butterflies or plants, and my experience is that such people are usually delighted to be asked to help to do a survey or draw up an inventory of wildlife on the site.
But more importantly, identify and engage with the local wildlife groups which are likely to exist in your area. In the UK there are many, ranging from the county-based coverage of wildlife trusts to more specialist organisations interested in birds, plants, insects and so on. The members of such groups are always keen to investigate areas of good quality habitat, and the likelihood is that they will not have considered the golf course as such a place. Invite them in, encourage them to engage with the greens staff (and any committee members or other members who are involved), and you will soon discover that they become a source of support and encouragement for the future. They can often provide specialist advice on how areas of rough can be managed to make them even better for wildlife, and can be very influential in the local community and in local decision making. Temple Golf Club in southern England has created an excellent working relationship with the Berkshire Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust by working along these lines, as have an increasing number of other clubs.
Most countries will have statutory organisations which are responsible for ecological or environmental sites and issues. Indeed, many golf courses in the UK lie within or contain such protected sites. The statutory body will want to ensure that protected sites are managed effectively, and will be delighted if that is being achieved without financial input from them. Many of their local staff will not be familiar with golf courses, and may well hold rather jaundiced views about golf courses. Make contact with them, and invite them to come and see what you are doing. This works especially well if your greens staff take them round the course, showing them how the roughs are managed, and explaining management activities more generally. If you are managing your course sustainably, with low inputs of water, nitrogen and pesticide, they will be even more impressed. Opening their eyes to how well golf courses can manage habitats and species will prove very helpful to you, given the powers which they have available if they don’t think the right things are being done.
National politicians are responsible for making policy on many things that can affect the golf industry, especially to do with land use, environmental protection, water use and the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers. Many of these matters are driven at the European level, with national governments responsible for transposing EU legislation into national laws. There will be consultations over new legislation, and engaging with your national golf federation to ensure that they produce a consolidated response on behalf of the industry is generally the best way to deal with such matters.
However, it is essential that responses are strongly founded on good evidence, so this makes it more important that golf clubs have good information on what they do, what ecological features they contain, how much water they use, and so on.
Without this strong factual basis, national federations will find it harder to show that their arguments are securely founded.
Golf does not deserve the poor reputation which it still has in the eyes of many environmentalists, and I believe that the industry should feel more confident in demonstrating and promoting the very many good things which are being done. But it also needs to recognise that there are still examples of poor practice which need to be addressed, and understand that just one bad example can have a disproportionately large impact on public perception of the industry.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.