Environmental Management Strategy at Bolton Old Links

Antony Wainwrightin Conservation & Ecology

"As the Second World War raged, the German Luftwaffe also added a few contours of their own which, thankfully, complemented Dr. MacKenzie's design"

It was July of this year that I returned to Bolton Old Links Golf Club, to where I first started my greenkeeping career fourteen years ago.

However, Bolton Old Links has its roots way back in 1891 when a merry band of very keen golfers laid out a nine-hole course on Smithills Moor above Bolton, and not on the coastal links like the name may suggest.

In fact, it was during 1911 that the name Bolton Old Links was adopted, with the links referring to a link to the original moorland course. In 1924, further land was obtained and the club approached the foremost golf course designer of the day, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, to develop the land into a formidable course which utilises the natural contours and undulating terrain by astute bunkering, as was his style.

The club is very proud to say that his involvement with the course allows them membership of the Dr. Alister MacKenzie Society of Britain and Northern Ireland.

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As the Second World War raged, the German Luftwaffe also added a few contours of their own which, thankfully, complemented Dr. MacKenzie's design and results in the testing layout seen today.

With the move here, I faced a fresh set of challenges in regard to pushing environmental initiatives forward and, of course, a new landscape in which to ply my trade. This prompted me to write this article for those wishing to do the same by providing some of the guidelines I follow.

It covers the main areas of environmental concern - water, waste, maintenance and conservation - which are central to my overall goal; that is, to manage a golf course as sustainably as possible.

Fortunately, the directors of the club also want to move in the same direction and are keen for me to produce short and long-term objectives that will improve the course whilst moving us to a more sustainable level.

Martin George from CJ Wildlife, another advocate of the sustainability theme, was eager to set us on our way with the kind donation of several nestboxes which will be located around the course for the enjoyment of our members, whilst providing safe nesting for a variety of bird species. I was surprised to learn that a selection of the boxes were made from recycled car interiors, known as ecoplate, and the glue that binds the boxes together is made from the traditional hoof and horn rather than synthetic. The choice of glue here is important as the hoof and horn glue seems to deter Grey Squirrels from vandalising the boxes and predating upon the nestlings inside.

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After visiting our course for a tour, along the way dispensing some advice, Martin met the rest of the team. Here, he commented that he was surprised on how much environmental initiatives we employ could have such a positive impact upon the game of golf and that, by thinning out the long-rough for example, we could help speed up play whilst significantly contributing to biodiversity.

After the initial visit from Martin, I set to work on trying to improve the sustainability of the course and, central to this, is to formulate a good plan and, in my case, to formulate a solid EMS. This will cover the four major aspects of course management that I always consider; water conservation, waste management, turf management and nature conservation, and will eventually form a solid working document that is designed not only to provide the greenkeeping team with clear objectives but to also inform our members about the complexities of sound environmental stewardship.

An Environmental Management Strategy, or EMS, is first necessary which details these objectives. In the initial stage of producing an EMS, we first need to answer the question "What have we got?" in terms of habitats and the course layout and, central to this is, to map everything we have. This map will indicate all features of the course and will include such things as type of grassland, woodland, water features, buildings etc.

Creating a map can be as easy as printing off a large-scale satellite image of your course and annotating the appropriate land uses, or you could be adventurous and use a computer to create your own map. There are a few resources online where you can accurately measure distance and area, which is also handy when planning individual initiatives.

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Once the map has been completed, it gives you a great visual aid that can be extremely useful when trying to communicate your ideas to the rest of your team, the club's directors and the members.

With the newly created map, I can clearly see that Bolton Old Links contains a variety of habitats that build up the character of the course. These include coniferous and deciduous plantations of various ages, heath, acid and neutral grassland, scrub, watercourses and a small pond.

Each one has a bearing upon the game of golf and, in my opinion, should be managed to improve playability whilst maximising aesthetics and ecological value. By categorising these habitats on our annotated map we are able to define management strategies to improve these areas and, therefore, bring the club to a more sustainable level.

The heath we have here, for example, is a remnant of a vast swathe of heather and moorland that was present before the course was built, and is slowly diminishing through vegetative succession and reverting to scrub. A strategy for enhancing our heath is therefore necessary to maintain the upland qualities of the course.

Fortunately, this is quite a simple operation and involves the clearance of a few small saplings that would

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eventually shade out the heath vegetation below and, together with the eventual dropping of leaves, would permanently change the character of the soil below. If this was to happen, it would be much more difficult, indeed almost impossible, to restore the heath habitat, thereby demonstrating the necessity to perform the simple task of sapling removal before the job becomes too demanding. This management regime for heath will then be written into our growing EMS.

In the two month's since starting here, I have also managed to complete two more detailed additions to our EMS, with the completion of a report regarding eradication of Himalayan Balsam. This report is available to all of our members through our website and documents aspects of the plant's ecology, presence on the course, methods for eradication and, as always, an annotated map. The map quickly shows how this invasive weed is starting to take a foothold within the course boundaries and has proved particularly useful to our members who, after reading the report, have a greater understanding of what this weed can do on a golf course and to the further environment.

A second, more substantial report describes the condition of the long-rough grassland habitats throughout the course. The report attempts to map all areas of rough on the course and provide a management regime to develop the rough from a thick, coarse sward to a more golfing friendly thin and wispy sward, whilst removing the stands of soft rush and other weed species.

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All the rough on the course was placed into grades of three distinct types present to allow for differing management regimes to tackle them.

These were from Grade 1, which was dominated by fine, wispy species, to Grade 3, which was dominated by coarser, thick species.

The plan is to eventually bring the quality of the rough to Grade 1, which will significantly improve our sustainability by reducing the need to intensively manage these areas whilst improving the ecological value. An excerpt from the report below describes in more detail:

"Long rough grassland forms a major factor upon playability at Bolton Old Links and management is necessary to prevent the grasses from becoming thick and entangled with thick species dominating. As the course is in an upland area, the grass species present should be thin and wispy with fescues, bents and other wispier species predominating. Although upland grasses are still prevalent on this course, coarse, thick species, such as Yorkshire Fog, Ryegrass and Cocksfoot, are present in many areas due to an increase of fertility within the soil, compaction and lack of any past management regime.

Large tracts of Soft Rush are also present, which is a severely thick plant, and finding or playing a ball from areas of rush is almost impossible. All these coarse species are detrimental to the game of golf as they prevent fast ball retrieval, slowing down play, and also impact upon the golf swing when trying to play balls out of the rough.

The rough on this course also has aesthetic value and, with future development, will be more relevant to an upland golf course.

Lastly, through the development of the long rough, we will be enhancing the environmental value of these areas by creating a habitat where wildflowers and biodiversity can thrive. All of the above will contribute significantly to the sustainability of the club by eventually reducing the need to manage the long rough whilst providing better playability, aesthetics and ecological value of the site."

The above statement is designed to give a detailed picture of the long-rough, with the remainder of the report containing further detailed information about the different grades of rough, how to manage them and the likely timescales and costs involved. Again, this is complemented be a series of hole-by-hole maps that help me manage the areas effectively. We have also enlisted the help of a local farmer to cut and remove the rough initially and will be following this up with a scarification regime with some reseeding in the worst affected areas.

It is not only nature conservation and enhancement that is covered by the EMS. Waste is also seriously considered as there are direct benefits, especially when taking into consideration the use of green waste. The product of this can provide a free source of compost that can be used for a variety of things from fertilising fairways to placing within newly created wooded plantations.

So, with this in mind, we have devised a number of designated green waste areas around the course in spots that do not take us too far away from where we are working. Here, we can periodically collect and move the waste to a dedicated composting area off the course. This also has the added benefit of preventing excess nutrient build-up in other areas - the long-rough for example - which would slowly revert to a coarser sward through continued tipping.

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Another important aspect of our EMS is management of water, and work will be done to see if we can reduce our use of this limited resource. Plans are being made to install a weather station so we can monitor our weather, make better use of our irrigation system and make more informed decisions about when to use it.

There is also the possibility of displaying current weather conditions through the weather station on the club's website, giving members the opportunity to check up-to-date information about the course condition without them having to leave their homes. Together with the creation of new ponds and enhancement of the one existing pond on the course, this will combine to provide a complete picture of the considerations we make to the use of water.

In time, I will have covered all the main areas of environmental stewardship on the golf course and will have a complete working EMS that provides step-by-step guidance for all our initiatives.

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Eventually, it will contain a plan for woodland management, hedge management and a major section covering all aspects of turf management, from the use of the innovative compost tea to simple things such as height of cut.

All habitats on the course will feature, and there is also the small problem of Japanese Knotweed, another invasive weed threatening to occupy the course. Also pencilled in for the near future is the creation of a wildflower meadow that will act as a scenic backdrop to one of our holes.

It's been quite a busy few months for me, as you can see, and I'm sure that it's going to remain so for the foreseeable future, especially as winter provides the best opportunities to get projects off the ground.

With the excellent greenkeeping team here, and the backing from the club's directors, I'm really looking forward to moving the course towards sustainability.

Further information regarding the different types of nestboxes can be found at: http://www.birdfood.co.uk/ctrl/node:133;page:17;/nest_boxes

Internet mapping resources: http://gridreferencefinder.com

All photos kindly provided by John R Barlow. Visit www.jrbarlow.co.uk to view a selection of other fine images.