Necessary budget cuts have brought about major changes in the way that Carmarthenshire County Council looks after the twenty summer sports turf surfaces under its control. Michael Bird reports on a move that has seen the majority of the county's bowling greens and cricket grounds lose their resident groundsman to be replaced by two dedicated and skilled mobile teams
It was a very different picture twenty and more years ago when local authority services within the present-day county of Carmarthenshire (Welsh name: Sir Gaerfyrddin) were delivered by and within three local government areas; namely Carmarthen District Council, Dinefwr Borough Council and Llanelli Borough Council.
At that time, these three local authorities were constituents of the administrative county of Dyfed, which had been created out of the ancient Welsh counties of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. Following the Local Government Act of 1972, the three counties merged in April 1974 to create Dyfed County Council, which was headquartered in Carmarthen.
Stretching from Aberystwyth at its northernmost point down to Llanelli in south-west Wales, Dyfed County Council covered an area of around 2,230 square miles and had a population close to 320,000 when it was formed in 1974.
On 1 April 1996, twenty-two years to the day after its creation, Dyfed County Council was officially broken up under the terms of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994.
The three administrative county councils that emerged from the dissolution of Dyfed followed closely the borders of the original three counties of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire, the latter being renamed Ceredigion by its new local authority.
The third largest county in Wales behind Powys and Gwynedd, Carmarthenshire saw its three former districts of Carmarthen, Dinefwr and Llanelli brought together in 1996 to form a unitary authority which provides all local government services in a county covering close to 1,000 square miles with a population of around 185,000.
The main population centres of Carmarthenshire lie towards the southern, coastal side of the county, the dividing line being marked by the A40 trunk road, built originally in the 1920s to connect London with Fishguard.
North of the A40, the landscape is well-wooded and rugged with a very low population. There are no towns, only a few small villages and hamlets.
Although steeped in rugby history, thanks mainly to the exploits of Llanelli RFC and other vibrant town, village and community clubs, Carmarthenshire has also played host, over the years, to a good number of cricket teams as well as bowls and football clubs.
Traditionally, many of the sports played on council-owned grounds were grouped together within one park, with a resident groundsman employed to prepare and keep the fine-turf summer sports surfaces in good shape throughout the year.
These duties overlapped in late summer and early spring with work on nearby winter sports pitches - primarily white-lining and goalmouth repairs.
R egular mowing of the council's thirty football and fifteen rugby pitches during the main growing season was carried out by tractor and gangmower or by ride-on machines, visiting on a ten to fourteen day cycle which included also the mowing of cricket outfields, parks, school playing fields and other large public open spaces. Winter mowing was undertaken as and when needed, depending on the weather and level of grass growth.
The system worked well, with the eleven council-employed resident groundsmen taking a real competitive pride in the parks and sports facilities under their personal care and supervision.
However, the global financial crisis of late 2008 and 2009, and subsequent economic downturn, resulted in the spotlight being focused sharply on the cost of providing local authority services throughout Britain, with no exemption for Carmarthenshire.
"Historically, the annual fee paid by users of sports facilities owned and maintained by the council has been low and not really economical in comparison with the subscriptions paid by users of private sports clubs," commented Gareth Howells, assistant grounds maintenance manager with Carmarthenshire County Council, based at the council's main Trostre depot in Llanelli.
A former bowls greenkeeper with Llanelli Borough Council, Gareth has been in his current position for eighteen years, reporting to the council's grounds manager, Paul Murray.
Giving an example of the disparity between income and expenditure, Gareth pointed out that an annual season ticket for a full member of a bowling club playing on one of the fourteen greens owned and maintained by Carmarthenshire County Council was £88 five years ago.
This year, the fee stands at £102, a figure capable of producing a maximum annual income of little more than £5,000 from a facility used for between five and six months by fifty club members, if that.
The result is a significant shortfall in revenue required to pay for the staff and machinery needed to keep bowling greens and cricket squares in optimum condition over a six to seven month season, placing a disproportionate demand on council tax coffers. Although this situation might be perfectly acceptable to those local council tax payers who play bowls or cricket, it is less so to the vast majority who do not.
As memberships of bowling clubs continue to decline, it is of little surprise that more and more councils are looking at handing-over the ownership and responsibility for maintaining the green to the club itself. The same applies to cricket.
With annual budgets, council tax rises and public spending levels coming ever-more closely under the microscope, Carmarthenshire County Council, in common with other authorities throughout Britain, took a long, hard look at the figures to see where cost savings could be made.
The axe finally fell over the winter of 2012/13 when the seventy-strong groundstaff team employed by Carmarthenshire County Council was reduced to forty-one, four of those retained being fine turf specialists. Of those laid off, the majority took voluntary redundancy.
As a result of the staff reductions, only three out of the original eleven sites looked after previously throughout the summer months by a resident groundsman have remained manned, but at a reduced level of staffing.
These three sites - all classed as high profile - are at Parc Howard on the northern outskirts of Llanelli, which has two well-used bowling greens; Parc y Dre, located adjacent to Llanelli Town Hall and offering a bowling green and a synthetic all-weather surface; and Ammanford Park, which has a bowling green and a cricket pitch situated close to the centre of Ammanford, a former coal mining town with a population of around 5,500 located equidistant from Carmarthen and Llanelli.
The council's remaining sports facilities, where fine turf summer sports surfaces had previously received the attention of a full-time resident groundsman from spring to early autumn, are now being tended up to three times a week through the season by two mobile two-man teams, comprising the four fine turf specialists retained when Carmarthenshire County Council was forced to pare its groundstaff numbers by around forty percent.
In addition to the reduction in staff numbers, Carmarthenshire County Council has cut back dramatically on the quantity of materials used for turf maintenance. Annual expenditure on topdressings, for example, has fallen from almost £40,000 to around £10,000 in three years, whilst overseeding now takes place only when strictly necessary in order to minimise the need for more costly renovations later.
Because of the specialist equipment, training and qualifications required, tasks such as large-area spraying, servicing of bowling irrigation systems and the autumn renovation of cricket squares and bowling greens has remained in the hands of professional contractors including Complete Weed Control, Avonmore Associates and Wayne Duggan.
Losing resident groundstaff at the majority of the council's summer sports facilities did produce a visible negative impact from spring 2013 onwards, as Gareth Howells explained.
"The level of litter at many of those sites went from zero to nuisance level," he said. "Previously, the resident groundsman would deal with dropped litter and empty the bins throughout the day, as and when needed, so that the facility always looked neat and tidy. Now, we have a dedicated team visiting every facility throughout the week to collect and remove litter."
This operation is supported by the two mobile, two-man teams who are working every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the playing season on council-owned bowling greens, leaving Tuesdays and Thursdays for the maintenance and preparation of cricket squares and wickets for the coming weekend.
Virtually all of the machinery required for regular fine turf maintenance is transported from facility to facility within two long-wheelbase Ford Transit vans, both equipped with a purpose-designed fold down ramp and rear tow hitch, the latter enabling specialist equipment to be shared by the two fine turf teams and be moved easily and safely by trailer to individual outlying sites, as and when needed.
"The introduction of mobile teams dedicated to the maintenance of Carmarthenshire's fine turf sports surfaces did involve a complete rationalisation of our existing fleet," pointed out Gareth Howells. "Whereas, previously, most machinery had been stored on site in the groundsman's lock-up shed, we now needed to have specialist fine turf kit that could be transported and used at maybe five or six different locations in one day."
"Although some of the newest and more specialist machines were retained, we managed to dispose of quite a number which were replaced with dedicated equipment following consultation with the staff."
One of the first high-use items of machinery to be considered was the fine turf mower that would be used to maintain bowling greens and cricket squares.
Gareth pointed out that he had favoured the purchase of two ride-on triple greensmowers, but had been dissuaded due to their initial high purchase cost and the possible future need to transfer out assets if greens maintenance was ever handed over to clubs.
"Instead, it was decided that we would go down the pedestrian route and demonstrations were arranged in 2013 of five different makes of walk-behind greensmower," he said. "The result of our practical assessments was conclusive, with the Baroness LM56 mower coming out on top with every member of the fine turf team and also the workshop staff. Features that scored highly were its balance, ease of handling and low weight, without being flimsy. The total purchase price was also very competitive for the four machines that were ordered."
Supplied by local dealer, Terry Harrison of Narberth, Pembrokeshire, the four Baroness mowers have 11-bladed reels giving a 56cm cut and came with interchangeable grooming and verticutter reels.
For maintaining cricket squares and other grass areas demanding a neat, close-cut finish, Carmarthenshire County Council has invested, this year, in five John Deere R54RKB pedestrian rotary roller mowers capable of cutting down to 15mm across a 54cm working width.
Other specialist pedestrian machines available to the council's two dedicated fine turf teams include a BLEC pedestrian overseeder, a Sisis Auto Rotorake scarifier and a Tru-Turf greens iron.
Although a trailer can be attached to both vans, the challenge of negotiating narrow lanes and the awkward access to a number of facilities makes the vans' purpose-built on-board ramp the favoured option for loading and moving pedestrian equipment in everyday use.
Designed and built by Hertfordshire firm, Sara Ramps, and installed by the council's own workshop staff, the full-width fold-down ramp is proving a huge success, allowing one man to move pedestrian machines effortlessly on and off the van in complete safety.
Gas assister struts help minimise the effort of raising and lowering the ramp which is constructed from strong, yet lightweight slip resistant aluminium checker plate.
The ramp's time and effort saving abilities were demonstrated at Llandovery Croquet and Bowls Club in mid July on a day when only one of the normal two-man turf maintenance crew was available to do the rounds.
Normally, both men would have cut the green ahead of a croquet session, planned for that afternoon by a new sporting venture that commenced in 2013, following a chance remark made to Gareth Howells at the 2012 Ammanford Carnival.
"An acquaintance named John Evans asked me, in passing, whether the council might have a spare bowling green that could be made available to a new croquet club that he was wanting to establish in the area," recalled Gareth. "I told him that there was such a bowling green in the town of Llandovery, about twenty miles north-east of Ammanford. The green was no longer in use because the former bowls club had folded due to lack of members. However, we were still maintaining the green, so it was in good condition."
Within four weeks, John Evans had confirmed his intention to use the green for croquet and had registered the new club with the Croquet Association, retaining the word 'Bowls' within its title in case there was a resurgence of interest in the game.
"The council's income went from zero in 2012 to £600 last year, thanks to John's membership-building efforts which has resulted in a club today with more than twenty regular players," commented Gareth. "Our bowling green measures 42 yards square, so John is able to mark out two croquet lawns spanning 35 yards by 21 yards, which is a little less than a regulation full-size croquet lawn, but fine for players of a certain age."
Gareth stressed that he was delighted that the redundant bowling green was proving suitable for croquet. "In fact, John has commented that the surface is far superior to any that one would find on a normal domestic lawn," he said. "He is keen to build the membership and hopes that the game wi ll bring in new players, young and old, from the surrounding area."
"One interesting point he makes is that older people find croquet easier to play than bowls because there is very little stooping or bending with croquet. All shots are played standing upright."
In common with all of the council's fine turf sports surfaces, Gareth has programmed the green at Llandovery into a rolling schedule which, weather permitting, sees one green being solid-tined each week using a pedestrian Toro ProCore 648, followed by a once-over with a Tru-Turf greens iron, a treatment which, he says, the bowlers love to see taking place.
The greenkeepers can select tine sizes ranging from 8mm micro up to 16mm hollow core tines, depending on the designated treatment.
Hollow tining is carried out in the autumn on those greens requiring decompaction, with cores collected and removed manually. Topdressings are applied also in the autumn utilising a John Deere ProGator turf vehicle with TD100 topdresser attachment. A 70:30 dressing is applied at a rate of 2-3kg-m2, wherever hollow tining has been carried out.
"Although input costs have fallen in line with reduced budgets, we are still managing to maintain and produce a full range of first-class playing surfaces that are appreciated by their users," said Gareth. "A public consultation is taking place currently within Carmarthenshire involving the council, sports clubs and other interested bodies. The result, expected in September will, hopefully, help determine the best way forward in the light of continuing cuts in the public purse."
"We hope, very much, that we will be able to maintain our current level of services in respect of the provision and upkeep of grounds, but it is likely to require closer cooperation with and support from town and community councils to achieve those goals. Only time will tell."
What's in the vans?
Both of Carmarthenshire County Council's mobile fine-turf teams carry the following equipment in their vehicles at all times:
Baroness LM56GF 11 blade pedestrian cylinder mowers (x 2)
Lloyds Paladin 21in pedestrian cylinder mower
John Deere R54RKB pedestrian rotary roller mower
Allen Pro Flymo
Stihl FS70 grass trimmer
Stihl BG86 debris blower
Sisis Auto Rotorake
The following machines are shared by the two teams and moved to site by trailer when needed.
BLEC pedestrian overseeder
Tru-Turf greens iron
Toro ProCore 648 pedestrian aerator
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXi
John Deere ProGator
John Deere TD100 topdresser