Golf courses and wildlife

Dr Mark Hampton MIEEMin Golf

StourbridgeRough2.jpgThe nature conservation community, in general, sees golf courses in much the same way as agricultural landscapes i.e. lacking in substantial wildlife potential because they comprise a large expanse of intensively managed grass. However, it is becoming more widely accepted that golf courses represent a significant wildlife resource in an increasingly developed country like Britain.

In many parts of the UK, green belt land, often including some valuable habitat, is increasingly under pressure from the need for more housing and industry, making recreational areas and gardens more important for our wildlife that is under ever more pressure. Golf courses also have a contribution to make and, with their large open spaces and areas of rough, water and out-of-play areas, have been described as 'a green lung' and 'a haven for wildlife'.

Plants and animals continue to amaze us with their ability to make the most of whatever is available. There are many examples, such as peregrine falcons nesting on cathedrals, foxes and badgers becoming urbanised and dragonflies in garden ponds - wildlife will utilise golf courses as they will urban areas.

Having said that, it is true that large areas of golf courses will always be poor in wildlife terms, however, it is the areas away from the greens and fairways that provide opportunities. It is these areas where, if managed appropriately, that really can contribute to biodiversity.

As the green belt gets slowly eaten away, and the importance of golf courses becomes recognised, more information is being published on the wildlife value of golf courses. Good advice on management has been produced by bodies such as the Scottish Golf Environment Group (2002, 2009), Tanner and Gange (2005), Tew (2004) and, not least, golf's governing body, the Royal & Ancient, in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2009).

Barn Owl1.JPGThe R&A have a key objective that golf course management is "... optimising the playing quality of the golf course in harmony with the conservation of its natural environment under economically sound and socially responsible management".

So, change is afoot, with golf courses becoming places where wildlife should be able to thrive alongside men and women playing a game they love. An important fact with regard to golf courses and ecology is that they are based on a landscape scale (not just a field amongst a sea of arable crops) and have the potential to be home to mosaic of habitats and an array of species.

In terms of addressing wildlife and conservation on a golf course, there are two key issues that come into play:
• Protected habitats and species - these may be found on a golf course and could have legal implications for management and development.
• General biodiversity value - there is potential to manage golf courses such that they maintain and increase the wildlife they support.

The Law

There are several pieces of both UK and European legislation that protect wildlife.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (WCA), represents the major legal instrument for wildlife protection in Britain. It has been amended several times and other legislation has been passed since its first inception, which has added further legal weight to wildlife legislation. In short, if protected species are present on a golf course, then there are potential implications for the course owners and managers.

The legislation also created a framework within which sites could be designated as protected areas; these are known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). SSSI status affords a site protection from development, and a requirement for management to maintain the habitats and species found. In England, around one hundred golf courses have all or part of the course designated as SSSI, and in Scotland around thirty courses have the same designation.

European legislation is, in many ways, similar to the UK legislation, taking many of the same species and protected sites and giving them an enhanced status in the eyes of the law. There is a list of protected species and designated sites known as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. In short, many species and our important habitats are legally protected by UK and/or European law, and work that impacts on them may be an offence.

In addition to the legal aspect is the Biodiversity Action Planning process. This originated from a government declaration that we would identify a list of priority species and habitats; each one now has an action plan that sets out the measures required to ensure long term protection. There are 1150 species and 65 habitats to strengthen this initiative. All of these species and habitats are now taken into consideration within the planning process.

GCN 1.JPGGolf Courses and protected wildlife

Undoubtedly, many golf courses will be home to protected species such as birds, bats, newts, snakes, insects, mammals and plants. In addition, some golf courses will include protected habitats such as species-rich grassland and heathland. This means that, where a golf course wants to carry out a development (changes to buildings or the golf course itself), then ecology matters will need to be addressed in the planning process.

Even if planning permission is not required, there are still potential legal implications for any works.

Adder1.JPGEcological consultancies, such as ours, spend a lot of time advising clients on their legal duty to address species and habitat issues. To ensure that protected species and habitats have been considered in the planning process, surveys, carried out by suitably qualified ecologists, will often be required and advice then given on the findings of the survey. If protected species or habitats are present, suitable mitigation may be required, this is usually a condition of the planning permission.

Golf Course management for wildlife

Many habitats of high value to wildlife need some form of management to maintain that value. Most types of grassland, for example, will not remain as grassland unless they are grazed, mown and/or disturbed in some way. In fact, many of the grassland communities that are considered of high value for wildlife have developed due to the way humans have cultivated or managed the landscape for crops, feed and grazing animals. It has only been in the last seventy or so years that advances in agricultural techniques, such as the use of fertilisers and pesticides, have caused the devastating impact on wildlife we see all over the UK today.

Understanding how species-rich grassland or heathland develops gives us the key to creating wildlife-rich golf courses. How golf courses are managed will determine whether they become a sanctuary for wildlife or a landscape poor in native species, really only good for the golfers who use it.

This is not a new concept for golf course managers, as many already do manage sensitively for wildlife. Many courses have biodiversity plans and management plans for wildlife enhancement such as Royal Birkdale, Royal Troon, Royal St Davids, Ipswich Golf Club, St Andrews, The Dyke Golf Club (Sussex), and this just touches on the many golf courses that are managing for wildlife.

My own experience is going to Royal St George's Golf Course in Sandwich and seeing the rare and quite spectacular Lizard Orchid. Amongst other areas, it grows in the rough grass close to the fairways. In fact other rarities such as Bedstraw Broomrape, Marsh Helleborine and Sand Catchfly make this golf course and the local area a botanist's delight.

The fact is that nearly all golf courses will have large rough and 'out-of-play' areas, which are not managed as intensively as the fairways and the greens, or are out of bounds or unlikely to have a ball come to rest. These represent a potentially valuable wildlife resource.

Of course, fairways and greens have to remain highly managed (regularly mown, using pesticides and fertilisers etc.), as any other form of management will undoubtedly hinder the game for the golfer, and the course will lose membership. However, roughs and out-of-play areas, with a little thought and planning, can become wildflower rich meadows, heathland or valuable wetland through sensitive management.

For example, woodland management could include coppicing, ride creation or scalloping edges to increase invertebrate. Heathland management would involve creating different age structures through variable cutting regimes, and grassland management would allow for nutrient depletion and relaxation of regular cutting.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and The R&A have recently written a guide to habitat management on golf courses (Duff and Symes 2009). Admittedly, it being an RSPB guide, it focuses on best management practice for birds. However, it discusses the fact that good habitat management for birds will mean good habitat management for other species groups such as plants and insects.

The aim of this article was to introduce the concept that golf courses and wildlife can, and do, coexist. In addition, there are laws that protect UK wildlife which need to be legally adhered to by all, including golf courses.

There is little doubt that golf courses can be havens for wildlife, and many golf courses are already embracing the idea. The fact that many more golf courses could take up the challenge is an exciting one, and could have a huge part to play in the aim to reverse the terrible loss of wildlife that has been seen in the UK over the last century.

Dr Mark Hampton MIEEM, Senior Ecologist,
Peak Ecology Ltd.

UK Law

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is the key piece of wildlife legislation, this is regularly amended affords protection to a range of species. In addition, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, The Protection of Badgers Act 1992, Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 and others all restrict what can be done regarding certain species.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act includes several schedules which list the various species that are protected and also pest species that need to be controlled. For example Schedule 8 lists the plants which are protected. Animals are a more complicated story and can have different levels of protection, this is all described within the act and the species are listed in Schedules 1 to 7. Schedule 9 lists the non-native pest species.

European Law

Further protection of rare and vulnerable habitats and species is provided by the Conservation Regulations (1994), which are developed from the EC Habitats Directive 1992. There are five Parts and four Schedules and they primarily relate to European wide protected habitats (Annex 1) and species (Annex 2). Protected habitats are designated under the Natura 2000 network, which include Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). SACs relate to the habitat type in general and SPAs relate to areas that provide habitat for particular assemblages of birds. This is the highest level of protection for habitats in the UK and any areas afforded this level of protection will already be SSSIs.

An example of managing for wildlife - creating a wildflower meadow

A key issue for grassland diversity is the nutrient levels in the soil. Generally, high nutrients means low numbers of different species; although mowing too much or mowing too little can have the same effect.

Firstly the grass needs to be cut but, to allow nutrient depletion, the cuttings need to be taken away and not left where they are cut. If the soil is very low in nutrients already that may be enough management to encourage wildflower diversity.

However, more management is usually required. Grazing after cutting and in early spring can be hugely beneficial for managing wildflower meadows, which replicates historically the way hay meadows were managed. Grazing may not be practical on a golf course, therefore further cuts may be required (e.g. early spring and late autumn); this does not give the same variation in structure and disturbance as grazing, but it will help develop diversity.

Sowing additional species into the sward may be required, which would mean further management, such as harrowing, to create gaps for seed to germinate. Locally sourced seed will be best, possibly harvested by a local contractor/farmer.

It is vital to understand local conditions when carrying out habitat restoration or creation, particularly when sowing wildflowers. The golf course manager and his team will know the local conditions better than anyone, and their input will be vital to the success of any project. The soil conditions - soil type, pH, hydrology - need to be understood and will influence the aim and objectives of the project and, in particular, what grassland community is trying to be created/restored.

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