Seeing the scale of the operation needed to stage The Open Championship at Muirfield you might wonder how such an enormous sporting event can be carried off without severely damaging the landscape and wildlife that would otherwise call its links dunes and grassland home. Fortunately, this is exactly what has been achieved on this picturesque piece of land that shelves down towards the Firth of Forth.
Muirfield has its own Environmental Management Plan which set out the club’s commitment to both low input course management and the conservation of wildlife. The main objective is to present an outstanding golf course, taking advantage of the indigenous grasses that produce great golfing turf, and the links topography whose natural contouring provides a great golfing landscape.
The indigenous fescue and bent grasses are encouraged by adhering to frugal feeding and watering practices which provide the right environment for them to thrive and which have no measurable impact on the environment. This also means that growth is controlled to a slow pace, keeping cutting frequencies down with subsequent savings on fuel, time and machinery maintenance. The greens receive a mere 40 kg of nitrogen per hectare each year which provides just enough fertility to compensate for wear and tear. Watering is limited to encourage the native, drought-tolerant grasses to prosper and to produce the firm, running conditions associated with links golf.
The playing standards expected of Open greens must not be compromised and the reaction of the golf ball when it lands on the green from tight fairway lies and the way the greens putt would be jeopardised if current policies were discarded. The firmness, smoothness, trueness and speed of the greens, together with soil moisture and organic matter content, are monitored by Colin Irvine, Muirfield’s Course Manager, and the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) to ensure everything is as it should be come Open Championship week.
Grassland management is a key element of Muirfield’s golfing and environmental strategy; the two working very much hand-in-hand. Beyond the fairways, the grassland that may most often come into play is mown at two heights; up to 50 and 100 mm. This provides the ideal combination of a penalty for wayward driving, but easy ball location. Competitors straying deeper into the grassland will not be so lucky, but the regime of annual mowing, baling and removal has transformed what was once thick, agricultural jungle into classic links grasslands dominated by marram and sea lyme, with rarer species such as quaking grass now being seen in increasing quantities.
Conserving dune grasses provides a relatively open sward which enables other plants to colonise, such as common spotted orchid, marsh marigold, yellow rattle, restharrow, eyebright and devil’s-bit scabious. The 170,000 spectators expected at The Open play their part in thinning out the grassland and creating the diverse plant colonies that support a wide array of wildlife.
All of this is good news for the native insects, moths, butterflies and small mammals that inhabit the Muirfield ecosystem. Forty-five bird species have been recorded at Muirfield, a wider variety and in greater numbers than that found on surrounding less biodiversity rich land. Linnet and yellowhammer feed on insects and the seeds produced by the grasses and other plants.
Joining the linnet and yellowhammer in the Red category of the Birds of Conservation Concern listing, which is produced by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), are the ground-nesting skylark and the grey partridge. Preparations for The Open included early mowing of spectators’ routes, grandstands and tented village locations to ensure that these birds were able to nest in safe areas around the site and not be disturbed by the essential activities of staging a major golf championship.
A links golf landscape would not be complete without the revetted bunkers. Turf for building and repairing the Muirfield bunkers is grown on site and there is no waste during the process of preparing bunkers for The Open Championship. All waste material from the refurbishment of bunkers is composted to, eventually, be re-used for construction projects or divoting on the course. Water from washing down machinery and spraying equipment is also recycled, being cleaned by a closed-loop system utilising bacteria so there is absolutely no risk of polluting groundwater.
The course provides a great test of golf and is home to a wide range of plants and animals; many of them only present because of the way the links is managed. Course Manager, Colin Irvine, and his team are keepers of wildlife as well as the greens.