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Can Golf help protect sensitive habitats?

Dr Graham Earl, university lecturer, reflects on golf’s care for links landscapes.

By Graham Earl

Published:
28th July 2016
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The wild landscape of Royal St George's Golf Club.  

As skylarks hang overhead applauding your last shot, buzzards swing through your field of view, and kestrels hover politely during your backswing, you may be surprised to hear that links golf courses are not universally viewed as being havens for our native wildlife.  There is an old persistent argument which maintains that golf courses have a negative effect on natural habitats and the environment.  Links golf courses have in the past had a bad reputation amongst the purists of habitat conservation and applied ecologists.  The vast majority of sand dune studies exclude links golf courses, deeming them too modified to truly represent sand dune habitat.  Even today newspapers periodically lambast golf courses on their disdain for the environment.

Broomrape

This dune system hosts Open qualifying courses as well as the only haven for the very rare Bedstraw Broomrape.


It is true that you are unlikely to see (or want to see) orchids poking out of the fairway or sand martins in your bunker, but links courses are mostly made up from out of play, semi-wild areas.  Typically 60-70% of a golf course could be out of play.  This swathe of wilderness can both shelter a huge range of rare animals and plants, and look after your ball after that perfect tee shot that the wind took hold of.  If you add in the fact that over 35% of sand dunes in the UK are links courses, then golf has a lot to offer to this fragile habitat. 


At this point you may be thinking, ‘but what can we do to make our links courses even better for wildlife?’  It turns out that different sand dunes respond to different types of management, and the only way to find out what to do in different situations is through research into the effect of management.


A joint project between Canterbury Christ Church University, Natural England, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, Royal St George's Golf Club and Princes Golf Club investigated dune ecology/hydrology and management at the 520 hectare links complex at Sandwich Bay, Kent.  This dune system hosts Open qualifying courses as well as the only haven for the very rare Bedstraw Broomrape.


Princes trial
Management trials at Princes Golf Club.

From this work we now know that site specific management can turn around a dune system and squeeze the last drop of conservation value from it, without affecting the enjoyment of golfers.  Within a three year period the changes in management have reverted the SSSI status of the Sandwich dune systems from unfavourable plant communities to recovering habitat.  This rapidity of change is unprecedented for recovery of a sand dune system.

Changes in management such as burning the dried grasses were found to work best in some situations to encourage rare species.  In other situations, scraping the vegetation from the surface of the sand dune showed better results.  Using research to optimise sand dune management can also make this management less labour intensive and less costly.

Burning
Course-wide burning treatment at Royal St George's Golf Club.


Just leaving the sand dunes alone can be a disaster, both ecologically and economically, as the ground is eventually taken over by the sort of grass you might find in your typical play-park.  Then all the rare sand dune grasses, orchids and sand dune specialist animals get crowded out.  Once you factor in the effect of different management regimes, geographical location, elevation and water table heights (you can get sand dunes that are surprisingly wet), you are left with a number of new questions to answer, such as, what are the best management techniques for lower lying, wet or more saline dune systems?  An extension to the Sandwich Bay project is now in development and includes participation from a number of additional courses which host The Open, we hope to find some answers by visiting different types of sand dune across the UK and widening the knowledge we gained at Sandwich Bay.  Watch this space!

If you wish to support this project or you are interested in the research work undertaken to date please feel free to contact me at pratensis-consultancy@outlook.com or graham.c.earl@canterbury.ac.uk

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the R&A.