Golf, the natural game?

Can golf and nature co-exist? Is the game beneficial or detrimental to wildlife?

Is golf a responsible user of land?  

The world’s golf courses take up an estimated 1.8 million hectares (18,000 km2) of land, an area similar in size to Fiji, Kuwait or Wales.  As a sport, golf has a unique role to play in land management, and a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the biodiversity of the natural environment from which golfers take so much pleasure.

Golf and nature; golf can bring a positive outcome

Whenever golf and nature is discussed, the word ‘can’ is always used as a caveat to the impact golf has on the environment; golf can bring a positive outcome for biodiversity, or it can create green deserts.  The onus is very much on those developing and managing golf courses to ensure that their course conserves, protects and enhances nature.

The game of golf has a history of conserving landscapes which may otherwise have been covered by concrete and real estate.  The originators of our links, formed on poor quality agricultural land beside the sea, may not have considered themselves at the time to be protectors of a sensitive environment but that is what they were. Of the 220 true links across the world, more than half are sited in nationally or internationally recognised environmental designations and all play an important role in conserving dune landscape and its associated plant and animal biodiversity.  The original sculptors of those classic courses also seem to have appreciated the land forms they worked on, certainly they laid out golf holes to take advantage of the natural contouring, thereby minimising the disruption caused by the creative process.

The 12th hole at Royal Birkdale sits beautifully into the dunes

Contrast this to the golf courses that have been imposed on landscapes, producing caricatures of the links in wholly alien fields.  Fortunately, many modern golf course architects now actively reject such practices and are retracing their links to the past and learning to work with what nature offers.

There are opportunities for golf course architects to make an extremely positive impact on landscapes, particularly when given the chance to reclaim urban wasteland, old quarry or mining land on behalf of Mother Nature.  In such situations, golf courses can bring added value and enhance the landscape, encouraging greater numbers and diversity of plants and animals. They will also protect rare environments and reverse the damage created by some of man’s more destructive activities.

Mainz, Germany, built within an old quarry, conserves a previous land form with added natural value

Golf courses in urban settings may not seem to offer much scope for wildlife biodiversity, but they are often one of the few green spaces of significant size in built up areas.  The wildlife they support may not be particularly rare, but they serve a valuable purpose as a refuge for nature and as a potential stepping stone to the wider countryside beyond.

Every golf course can improve its contribution to the biodiversity of nature. There are many that have been singled out for praise in environmental competitions or certification programmes and those taking little heed of their responsibility in this area should reflect on the achievements of others.  It is, however, not just about setting aside spare land that does not come into play.  Proactive management is required to produce appropriate natural settings for the wildlife you want to, and should be, encouraging. 

Bringing more wildlife into your world is not always good for the environment, particularly if it means importing alien or exotic plants or animals that have no place in that particular setting.
Golf and wildlife can live in harmony!

Look around you and see what is growing in your locality and at the insect, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal populations they support.  Provide corridors to connect plant and insect populations throughout the golf course and into the wider countryside.

There are plenty of ways that golf courses can make more of the nature they support, and local conservationists and naturalists are a great source of knowledge and support.  Engage with them. You may be surprised by their encouragement and, in turn they will also be enthused by your commitment to make golf work with nature.   You may also be surprised by the business benefits that biodiversity can bring; savings by returning areas of the course to a lower maintenance regime, providing a more enjoyable golfing environment for your customers and the marketing potential of a positive association with nature.

Examples of golf working in harmony with nature include:

Callander Golf Club, Scotland (orchid protection) 

Carnoustie Golf Links, Scotland (sea pea protection)

Downfield Golf Club, Scotland (red squirrel protection) 

Le Golf National, France  

Royal Birkdale Golf Club, England (natterjack toad and sand lizard) 

Royal St George’s Golf Club, England (orchids)  

Ratho Park Golf Club, Scotland (bat protection)