An Open Venue for Wildlife
By Bob Taylor
Over the next few months the world's golfing press will be swamped with articles about the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George's. Club officials will turn green with envy as they read the names of the world's greatest golfers queuing up to play in this most prestigious event. Players, both amateur and professional, will adopt a similar shade as they view endless pictures of challenging holes set within breath-taking scenery, whilst greenkeepers around the globe will doubtless be inwardly craving to showcase their talents at creating such immaculate greens on this, the world's greatest golfing stage.
However, how many secretaries, captains, green staff or members will read the same articles and turn a similar shade of green at the thought of the unique and diverse flora and fauna supported by this year's Open venue?
Royal St George's Golf Club is situated within the Sandwich Bay and Hacklinge Marsh Special Area of Conservation (SAC) on the east Kentish coast. It has a long and distinguished golfing pedigree, having held the Open no less than twelve times. The whole area of Sandwich Bay and Hacklinge Marsh was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1981 due to its nationally important sand dune and coastal grassland systems. It has recently been upgraded to a SAC (a great accolade indeed) because the habitats and species it supports are rare or threatened in an international context. However, do not be fooled into thinking that the golf course is merely situated within this important conservation area and being dragged along for the ride. Conversely, the club is an integral part of the driving force that has steered this part of Kent into becoming one of Britain's most valuable wildlife habitats.
I have no doubt that I am speaking to a minority here but for those of you who are not familiar with the course, Royal St George's is a superb example of a typical English links golf course. The eighteen holes meander through the sand dune system giving the course a wonderful natural feel. Hole definition is provided through vast tracts of rough grassland dominated by the fine-leaved grasses such as red fescue, sheep's fescue and common bent, giving way in places to more tussocky stands of cocksfoot, Yorkshire fog and false oat-grass. It is this rough grassland situated amongst the sand dunes that supports some of the rarest and most beautiful plants in the UK.
The rough on the Royal St George's golf course supports outstanding and internationally important examples of dune grassland with a number of very rare species. It is on this section of the Sandwich dunes that the most complete range of dune grassland species and the greatest range of rare plants can be found. Although the dunes were originally formed as marram grass trapped sand to create them, this sand has gradually been replaced by a range of other plants as the dunes have become more stable (fixed). Part of this transition can still be observed in the dunes near to the coast where marram still occurs with red fescue and a range of other species, including common cat's-ear, wild carrot, yellow rattle and occasionally specimens of lady's bedstraw.
The majority of dune grassland around the course has succeeded beyond this point with marram grass largely eliminated from swards dominated by the fescues and bents. Other notable features of the golf course are the low lying areas known as dune slacks. These have a distinctive flora including grasses such as creeping bent, tall fescue and sea couch interspersed with a number of species that are declining throughout the country and classed as nationally rare such as adder's tongue fern, marsh helleborine and southern marsh orchid. Other rare and visually impressive plants that have strongholds within the golf course include crow garlic, viper's-bugloss, sea holly and restharrow, whilst the nationally rare lizard orchid (see Rare Plants and Animals) and bedstraw broomrape have their largest British colonies on the golf course.
The golf course not only supports an outstanding botanical array but also provides home to a diversity of invertebrates, many of which are associated with warm, dry conditions and include the nationally rare carthusian snail and grey bush cricket. The golf course and surrounding dunes are the last place in Britain where the bright wave moth still occurs. Its larvae feed on members of the pea family including smooth tare, a variety of vetches and also hare's-foot clover. The rough grasslands are also regularly used by a number of breeding birds, including Red Data listed species such as the skylark, corn bunting and partridge, and in the winter the rough grassland also provides excellent hunting areas for hen harrier and short-eared owl, both of which have even been recorded breeding on the course.
The club is well aware of the value of its course for the vast array of wildlife that find refuge there. Members and green staff alike are pro-active in managing wildlife habitats and encouraging a host of species. Advice is regularly taken from a number of conservation experts such as the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust, whilst very close working relationships are maintained with the STRI and English Nature. Liasing with such external bodies ensures that the main golfing objectives of the club are maintained whilst upholding a moral obligation to protect and enhance this most valuable of wildlife habitats. The success of Royal St George's as both an outstanding golfing venue and as one of the UK's premiere nature reserves can therefore be thought of as a shining example of how golf is good for wildlife and wildlife is good for golf.