Operation Pollinator - Winning at life on the course

Mark Sandersonin Conservation & Ecology

Banchory Golf Club, on Deeside in Scotland, won the Syngenta Operation Pollinator Award at the Golf Environment Awards, presented at BTME 2020. Course Manager, Richard Mullen, was acclaimed for the course's success in establishing wildflower areas on rough and out of play areas that has seen biodiversity flourish by providing essential natural habitats alongside a well managed golf course

Banchory Golf Club has gone from strength to strength over the past year, vastly increasing the areas dedicated to wildflowers, enthused Golf Environment Awards' judge, Rowan Rumball.

"Naturally seeded areas, and also areas sown with species that are appropriate to the local region, are both present," he commented. "STRI ecologists saw a diverse range of invertebrate species that can only be explained by a course that has been managed appropriately."

Along with winning the Syngenta Operation Pollinator Award at BTME, Course Manager Richard Mullen was also a finalist in the Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year Award and picked up the BIGGA Excellence in Communication Outreach Award 2020.

Pitchcare caught up with Richard, Rowan and Syngenta Operation Pollinator Manager, Caroline Carroll, to find out more about the Banchory experiences, and to provide tips for other clubs to achieve more successful results from their environmental initiatives

Pitchcare: Which ecological features have you found easiest to establish and given the quickest gains?

Richard Mullen: Although some things have been easy to establish and create, our aim is for the gains to be long term. But, if we had to choose one, it would be the introduction of Red Squirrel feeding stations and dray boxes. Creating these was achievable by help from the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels project, and spare wood!

Red squirrel on bird feeder / Red squirrel boxes being erected

Richard Rowan: Understanding the local environment to a course is vital to creating ecological enhancements that are taken advantage of quickly. For example if there is an adjourning woodland, bird boxes can help the local population to spread and grow; while lowland courses surrounded by ponds may see more luck with reptile refuges or biodiversity ponds. Richard saw the potential for increasing the local red squirrel population and this has produced dividends!

Caroline Carroll: With over ten years' experience of Operation Pollinator on golf courses, it's recognised that success doesn't happen overnight, but Richard's experience at Banchory has shown that, with every positive action, there are clear gains for the environment from day one. Given commitment and time, habitats and their value to wildlife get better and better. By utilising out of play areas to create diverse habitat features he's demonstrated the huge value that golf courses can have as a national environmental resource.

PC: Conversely, which ecological features have been most difficult?

RM: Getting wildflowers established within existing rough areas has definitely been a challenge. Thinning out the rough without any chemical help is a challenge on its own, especially with low staff levels, but one we feel that, after four years, is starting to bear fruits. Next time it would be easier, just due to experiences and learning the capabilities of the grass, especially in early spring when you need to cut and remove again.

Cut and collect rough to open sward for wildflowers

RR: Thinning out the rough to encourage wildflowers is all about persistence. By cutting and collecting through these areas you are removing nutrients that historically would have been removed by wild animals grazing. This helps reduce grass vigour and, along with scarification, opens up areas of the soil for new flowering species to take hold. The nutrients in these areas has built up like a bank, so it may be some years before you see results.

CC: The loss of Rescue, as a selective herbicide to remove competitive coarse grasses and leave fine fescues, was a serious blow for rough management and creating the space for wildflowers to flourish. But Operation Pollinator wildflower establishment trials at STRI have shown Richard is doing everything right in cutting and removing vegetation and deep scarification before over seeding; having sufficient bare soil before sowing looks harsh, but is crucial to get seed established. With ongoing management, it's important to take care to avoid fertiliser spread or run off onto the wildflower rough areas. That will help supress competitive grass growth, as well as ensure more efficient use of the nutrients where they are wanted and less environmental loss - which makes economic and sustainability sense.

PC: Which areas have personally given you the greatest satisfaction, and why?

RM: Increases in solitary bee, butterfly and hover flies are great to see and a real indication that we are doing the right things for habitat creation. Also, red squirrel numbers are a real delight for us as we got about our work, and for the players on the course. Both projects are equally satisfying, as we're feeling a real buzz around the increases in biodiversity. We only have a small team, Paul McKay and Steven Shaw, along with myself, so it has been great for them to engage with the projects - it allows them to learn and enhance their own environments as well as the courses.

Caroline Carroll and Rowan Rumball

RR: The number of different invertebrate species is a real sign of good quality habitat. Invertebrates tend to have very specialised needs, so a wide variety of them suggests a diverse habitat. I always recommend to get local experts involved to perform species counts at the start and at regular intervals during a project. This can provide data to show off with at the next general meeting!

PC: Has the ecological work resulted in any surprising finds for you?

RM: For sure, we had no idea of the existence of slow worms on the course. And, because of changes to our course maintenance, we have been able to grow natural heather again - from seed banks within the soil profiles.

RR: One of the most frustrating things about UK wildlife is how good it is at hiding! When I worked on housing developments, it was common to hear that one species or another 'definitely was not there', but it turned out that often the site owner was just not looking in the right place! Try placing reptile tins or wildlife cameras around the site, you may just be surprised by what you find!

CC: Throughout the Operation Pollinator project we've found that, if you put the habitat back, the wildlife will find it. Monitoring has found numerous examples of 'lost' or rare species that reoccur when habitats are restored. That demonstrates the incredible ecological value that golf courses can offer, as well as the publicity value for a club to highlight what it has achieved.

Signposted Operation Pollinator areas

PC: What tips would you give another golf course manager considering starting out on enhancing their ecological areas?

RM: Speak to as many local groups as you can as there is willing expert help out there. Certainly, The North East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership have been our rock locally; they advise and keep us right as well as try to develop our work within non golfing circles. Their connections with Scottish National Heritage, the RSPB and other organisations has effectively allowed us to have a foot in the door.

RR: I absolutely agree with Richard here. Wildlife and natural areas have been shown to provide numerous advantages to a golf course, from flood protection to pollination; so why not get a local group to help you develop these benefits, often for free!

PC: Where have you obtained the advice and knowledge to develop your ecological areas? What resources would you recommend others to look at?

RM: James Hutchison at BIGGA and the guys at STRI are absolutely amazing at giving advice and direction, they would be my first port of call. The GEO OnCourse programme gives you the record keeping aspect and ticks that box, but more than that, everyone at the GEO are amazing help and will always help us out here at Banchory. And I can't not mention Carolyn Hedley at Scottish Golf, who is always willing to listen, help and advise at the drop of a hat. I'm grateful to have the backing of all.

New natural habitat creation incuding heather and wildflower seed tiles transported into sand scrape areas / New heather appearing in Operation Pollinator areas / Accurate spray application targets inputs where they are fully utilised and avoids environmental losses

RR: There are also thousands of free resources online to give you ideas on what can be developed or improved on the course. From reptile hibernacula construction to anaerobic digesters, my best advice is to investigate online and look to how it may apply to the site.

CC: I'd also add that there's nothing better than talking to other greenkeepers and course managers. Whilst each club's situation is different, they have the shared experience of what can be achieved practically, and in the unique golf industry where there are specific economic and physical constraints. We have always found the 200 clubs involved with Operation Pollinator have been incredibly willing to share ideas and best practices.

PC: What benefits do you consider ecological features have for the design and playability of your course?

RM: I want everyone to enjoy their golf at Banchory but, if they don't, they can effectively "smell the flowers" and look at their surroundings and endangered species as they make their way around the course.

Playability has not changed and we work on habitats in out of play areas; the ecology work does not really change our targets on surfaces. We're a sustainable course, but mainly due to reductions in inputs and better targeting to have a genuine balance of integrated approach to turf and pest management.

RR: A common saying for myself and my colleague Bob Taylor is that "nature is possible on the golf course not despite of golf but BECAUSE of golf". A golf course has amazing potential for nature, all of which will go on to be appreciated by the membership and wider community alike.

Slow worm, Red Tailed Bumble Bee and Peacock butterfly

PC: What proportion of your annual maintenance budget do you consider you typically spend on ecological management?

RM: We have no allocated budget for anything ecology wise and certainly haven't the staff to do it in the normal working day. We have to look at how investment to help the course can be undertaken in such a way to have the greatest environmental benefit too, at little or no extra cost. We also take advantage of rain or snow days to do environmental projects, and put in extra time after work. Other things, such as topping up squirrel feeders can be done as the guys do course checks anyway. The only thing we bought was a jigsaw for the wood cutting; Godsend that, as poor Paul was starting to blister from saw use! We are starting to attract funding from the Ladies section of the club, and more interested parties coming forward, but we always could do with a little more!

RR: There is no required amount of time to dedicate to improving the biodiversity but any small amount makes a difference. Greenkeeping teams seem to get smaller and smaller by the year! It is worth mentioning that anything positive for nature should be appreciated. Just because you cannot dedicate 90% of the working week to improving the rough areas doesn't mean that the birds don't appreciate the boxes you put up in five minutes!

Keeping membership up to date with Operation Pollinator initiatives and what is going on / Engaging with the community and local schools to promote ecology on the golf course

PC: Have you had a good level of support from your members and the community for the environmental initiatives?

RM: There's been a very positive response from the members. We conduct regular members' evenings to communicate what we are doing, as well as showing them how to do it at home. Local schoolchildren are painting animals and insects that will go on a new course wildlife information sign. Local schools and nurseries also come in to spread wildflower seeds, and come back later to see the fruits of their labour. I've even had a little stint on local radio, explaining what we do on their local golf course. We feel that, as long as communications are strong, and the reasoning to do something is explained, the feedback is always positive… well, 99%!

RR: Communication is vital. Many ecological improvements are counter-intuitive and require explanation as to why they are being performed. Conversely, if you do not communicate what you are doing, then it will be missing an opportunity to get the benefits from the local community. Right now, environmentalism is on the rise and any increases in natural areas will be looked upon favourably.

Accurate spray application targets inputs where they are fully utilised and avoids environmental losses / Wildflower areas are thrashed with a stick to knock out seed before cutting

PC: Do you consider that the initiatives will help the economic sustainability of the club, as well as the environmental sustainability?

RM: Without doubt, yes. Over the past four years there has been no increases in the budgets and, like many others, there has been cuts, but the feedback is that the course has got better.

RR: Involvement in the local community shares the benefits both ways and encourages an increase in membership. There was a very interesting paper produced by the government that stated that, if everyone had equal access to green spaces, it would reduce the NHS mental health budget by 30%. If that is not good reason to support nature, I do not know what is.

CC: There is always the need to attract players to ensure the economic viability of the club. Where ecological initiatives can provide a more attractive environment in which to play, alongside good playing surfaces, it's a win, win for golf and the environment. Richard and Banchory Golf Club are ably demonstrating the balance can be successfully achieved and creating a sustainable business.


Join this initiative that offers potential to restore numbers of bumblebees and other valuable pollinating insects on your course, as well as a great marketing opportunity for the club.