Minchinhampton Golf Club nestles in the Cotswolds, where some 1,700 members enjoy golf on three different courses - The Avening, Cherington and Old Course. Thirteen greenstaff tend the courses, and the club employs a trained Environmental Manager to manage its rural affairs.
Forming environmental policies and action plans in such an environmentally sensitive region can be a big and scary project says the club's Golf Course Manager, Paul Worster.
In this article, he takes a look at the environmental work being undertaken at his club and how to get the ball rolling
I actually learned a new word the other day - greenwashing. This term has been coined to be applied to golf clubs or other businesses that carry out environmental works which are only of superficial benefit. In other words - they look good, but actually add very little in the way of value.
An example would be to buy, say, 500 bird-boxes from B&Q, plonk them up around the course and proudly announce, "hey, we're bird-friendly".
Yes you may think you are but, actually, what is needed is the correct habitat for birds; pollen rich plants, cover, water, hedgerows, all-year round food supplies and so on. This is far harder and much more expensive to produce.
I was slightly stung by the fact that someone might choose to apply the term to my club. So I decided to take a closer look and determine exactly what value our environmental work does bring.
Like many, I'm aware of the responsibilities of good environmental management but, unlike most, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to do something positive which reaches significant numbers of people. So, to start the process, I looked closely at the message that we put out - how we communicate with our members and potential new customers and what we actually say.
There is no question that majoring on a strong environmental case does spark interest, does create momentum, especially if you can pitch things so that people start to look at their own properties and think hey, I could do that. So, broad communication is good for our business and it is essential to put out a positive message. I speak to our members regularly but, equally importantly, I try to carry the club's message out to other interested local groups, such as garden clubs and so on.
Managing energy is a key factor and MGC had an audit carried out in 2009. The audit told us exactly where we were spending the most money on energy in the company and helped us decide where the maximum return on investment would be.
Taking electricity as an example - the audit found that 90% of the electricity consumed by my club was used in the clubhouse. So, if there was a choice between insulating the greenshed or insulating the clubhouse, we'd get a far better return from our money by focusing on the latter.
And, since taking the decision to invest in low energy lights, motion sensors, a new boiler and better insulation, we have reduced the energy bill by some £6,000 annually. So, a quantifiable, justifiable expense with a clear and measurable return.
Many of the same principles apply to the recycling of materials from the course. The difficulty of dealing with large amounts of grass clippings, tree branches, cores, bunker edgings and so on is well-known. These will accumulate at a staggering rate and, whilst dumping around the course is one option, eventually limited space and negative opinion will halt this.
Even a simple approach of shredding, mixing, and turning occasionally can reap benefits in delivering a usable material. By taking it a little further - mixing in the right proportions, turning regularly and sieving, it is possible to produce a material suitable for filling divots and topdressing tees. Annually, we produce at least 200 tonnes of material.
The investment in this is a leased SEKO shredding machine, which costs us £3,000 a year, and the once yearly hire of a screen at a further £1,000. Now, compare this to the purchase of 200 tonnes of dressing costing at least £30 a tonne (and the double-whammy of still having the unwanted materials to deal with on the course). Pretty impressive, but here's the rub - you can not only point to local material which required minimal energy input to produce, but also prove that the figures stack up. You can "sell" this idea to golf club members - and you can also sell them your compost!
In addition to the machinery lease, the club invests an additional £4,000 a year on environmental projects and our Environmental Manager (and my eldest son), Matt Worster, manages this area of the business. Since coming on board, he has worked closely with local groups and committees, calling and chairing meetings, setting agendas and producing minutes. This is different and challenging work, but helps the club understand how best to maintain its local reputation as being a well-managed, safe and cost-effective place to enjoy leisure time which, in turn, helps the club to attract members.
Recent achievements have been to produce, negotiate and sign off on an Environmental Management Plan for Minchinhampton Common where our Old Course is situated. This is the first time in the club's 125 year history that such a plan has been agreed by all local parties. In addition, the club is partnering the STRI, R&A and England Golf in a trial to produce weed-free fairways without pesticides.
So, why should we do this? Why do our members agree to this expenditure? Why are the vast majority of our members so interested, and why is it important to the club?
There are a number of answers to these questions:
- The club is a local community asset and has to brand itself as such. It sources its members from that local community and, therefore, has to be seen as completely responsible
- Good news is taken as read, but bad news spreads quickly, and the club not only needs to mitigate against bad news by understanding and recognising legislation, but it also needs to take the lead in important areas such as environmental issues
- The members have a vested interest - they have a pride in their club and they take a great interest in the course and its maintenance.
Ecology gives them a completely different set of issues to become involved in and to be a part of. And this is a key point - because, to retain members in the current economic climate, we have to impart a sense of ownership and involvement. We have to get our members eagerly awaiting not only the development of the course, but the outcomes of a new project or new planting
A good recent example of this at Minchinhampton is Operation Pollinator. We signed up last year, and designated a rather plain area in between two golf holes as the trial area. There is a public footpath running through this area, and two strategically placed information signs have generated significant interest from passers-by as well as members and golfing visitors. A lot of preparation work went on during the autumn and winter and the members could hardly wait to see the flowers come through in the spring.
So, what happened? Well, almost nothing really! The cold spring held back the flowers until the grass growth started in earnest and most of the flowers were swallowed up. A disaster? A solid reason not to bother again? Nope - simply some fine-tuning required and hold the faith.
So, how do we know what our members want and why is this important?
Like any business, we have to understand our customers. We have to understand what drives them, and what motivates them to continue to support our company.
And, like any other business, we have allies and we have competitors. All businesses need their own Unique Selling Points to set them apart from their competitors and, in the case of golf, a strong environmental effort goes hand in glove with the objectives of the golfer.
We survey the members, asking direct questions and are not afraid to disclose the answers, even if we don't like them.
Benjamin Harvey, founder of Harvey-Nicks department stores once said "Those who complain directly to me actually do me a service, because they give me the opportunity to put things right. But, those who complain and say nothing to me do me great harm, because they deny me the opportunity to put things right". Wise words indeed.
Member satisfaction surveys are really important and actually take less time than you might suppose. By conducting them regularly, it is possible to map various trends and measure the changes that your actions may take. This allows management to be more selective and effective. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.
I've digressed a little. Forming a workable environmental policy can, indeed, be a big and scary prospect. I would go so far as to say that it is perhaps not something that the Course Manager should take on single-handed. This is not a cop-out - in a simple business sense a manager does not have to be an expert on everything, but needs to know enough across a broad range to guide the various policies and be what might be termed as a 'Broker of Good Ideas'. He must be able to interpret what is going on in the industry, discern what is likely to be good for his business, and be capable of negotiating budgets and setting outcomes.
The first step is to audit what you've got - and form a plan. Well, two plans preferably; one of them with big capital type projects, such as a new lake, a composting facility, solar panels for energy generation, and so on.
The second plan will have much smaller projects requiring mostly planning and action without layouts of capital. For example, reptile hibernaculas, small wildlife ponds, wildflower areas, log stacks, habitat works etc.
Try and tie things in together so, whilst it is great to build a reptile hibernacula, siting it close to log stacks, nearby to a wildlife pond and some planting is fantastic.
Look for funding. DEFRA will support various initiatives, there is EU funding, whilst local councils will also support certain projects. In the case of golf, the R&A will support ranges of projects which meet their criteria and have the potential to become self-funding
Therefore, you can make a start on projects which don't really cost much but do deliver value, whilst planning and budgeting ahead to finance much larger projects.
A goodly list of small projects allows you the breathing space and budget to sustain progress on a number of fronts. I like to sustain progress because it is very easy to put new initiatives in place, but keeping them going over a significant length of time, often in trying circumstances, can be very difficult.
- Plan ahead
- Use quantifiable figures wherever possible to sell your ideas to your employer and members
- Point to the longer term benefits of environmental work - generally, nothing will happen overnight
- Communicate your ideas and their progress to your members on a regular basis. Blogs, notices, displays and illustrated talks will all help
- Get out and about locally, and use your environmental efforts and vision as a marketing tool for the club
- Show leadership in this area - others will cleave to you
- Include all your staff - the sheer positivity which attaches to environmental project work inspires everyone to feel an important part of the overall operation
- Enlist some help and support - if there isn't anyone on the staff who can take this on board, then look into the membership and find someone who you can talk to, and share ideas
And, above all, be proud of what you achieve.
Paul Worster is a career greenkeeper with two sons also in the industry. He is a Past Chairman of BIGGA, currently Education Officer for the South West Section of BIGGA, chairs the BIGGA Sustainability Advisory Panel, and is a Board member of FEGGA.