James Hutchinson, the recently appointed Environmental Officer at The St Andrews Links Trust, discusses how gorse has an effect on our sports grounds and golf courses, its pros and cons, the wildlife benefits and how best to manage it
Gorse, what is it? A leafless member of the pea family with angry spikes that really hurt when you touch them! There is, of course, much more to this plant than the aforementioned sentence, but that was how I, and many others, always thought of gorse; until lately, that is.
Gorse, furze, whins, the hedgehog plant, whatever you want to call it, is one of the most fauna friendly plants you could ever wish to meet. It does have its downsides, such as it being able to fix nitrogen from the rootzone it is growing in, therefore being able to out-compete other native plants or grasses; or the fact that it requires lots more management and subsequent waste removal than many others. It is also listed in the 'World's 100 most invasive plants'. However, and in comparison to the following good points, I think we can deal with a little hard work when you see the potential benefits to golf courses or sportsgrounds.
I won't dwell for too long on its identification as, for those of you who are not familiar with gorse will find out, once dealt with, you will probably not forget your encounter with it - you will not easily forget the tiny spikes which break off into the end of your finger where they seem to annoyingly stay for days on end, but for every yin there's a yang, so please read on.
The Benefits to Wildlife
The list of wildlife which will use gorse as a either a nest site or a safe hideaway is not limitless, but it's not far from it! Take nesting birds for instance. Wrens, stonechats, linnets, yellowhammers and Dartford warblers (to name but a few) will take readily to a well-managed gorse stand, but I have to highlight that the stand does have to be managed, otherwise nothing much at all will reside there.
The aforementioned linnets and yellowhammers are on the RSPB's Red List of endangered birds, therefore the gorse we have on our sports grounds and golf courses should be of the dense and compact form for these passerines to climb back onto the amber or green section of the list, whereas the elusive Dartford warbler spends the majority of its time mooching in and around gorse stands.
The Red List criteria is briefly explained as:
- Globally threatened
- Historical population decline in UK during 1800-1995
- Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last twenty-five years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC (Birds of Conservation Concern) review, starting in 1969)
- Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last twenty-five years, or the longer-term period
One species of bird which has a close relationship with gorse is the great grey shrike, also known as the butcher bird. This magnificent raptor catches its prey (usually a mouse or smaller bird) and then impales it on a gorse spikelet where it will return at a later date to chomp on the slowly decaying critter. The term 'butcher bird' derives from the way a butcher hangs the meat on a hook or other such sharp implement - similar to the shrike's method of storage - but I guess the shrike was carrying out this method long before we had butchers!
Rabbits, whilst often a nuisance to us grassland managers, are an important part of the food chain and, as such, should never be eradicated fully. The first place a rabbit will run to when there is a predator in the area is a gorse stand, where it is reasonably safe from whatever is chasing it - unless a stoat or a weasel is in hot pursuit, then it is probably doomed.
Many larger animals will use gorse as a safe resting site, including roe deer. I recently noted three of these smashing Eurasian species of deer adjacent to a gorse stand on the East coast of Scotland - as soon as they saw me, they all darted into the stand where they became unobservable, and this is another example of gorse being great for wildlife.
Gorse has the potential to flower all year round and quite often does; its bright yellow flowers offer a great source of nectar for early emerging pollinating insects, such as the peacock butterfly or many types of queen bee, not to mention that it is aesthetically pleasing and holds a strong smell of coconuts - next time you are near gorse in flower then take a smell. It always reminds me of being on holiday, for some reason.
What's the best way to manage gorse?
There are many ways to approach gorse management but, quite often, the easiest way is the best! For instance, if a stand looks scruffy and unkempt, then why not manage it by coppicing the bits which need it; simple!
However, five year gorse plans can become a tad more in-depth when approached from a set management point of view, as these require a lot more attention than simply looking at a stand and deciding which part requires coppicing.
With the aforementioned paragraphs in mind, let's start with how you actually manage gorse.
If a stand of gorse is deteriorating at the same rate, then it is probably best to coppice all of it in one hit; that's if there is plenty more gorse on-site. If there are not too many gorse stands on-site, then it is best to coppice the inner section of any given stand during the first year, followed by the outer section the following year. Ideally, removal would take place over three or even four seasons - starting from the middle and working your way outwards - but this is not always doable through time constraints, labour etc.
If you want to use traditional cultural methods (bow saws and pruners), then please do but, where gorse is concerned, it is usually best to chainsaw your way through a stand. It is, however, imperative that anyone who uses a chainsaw must be competent and have the correct certificates to hand and that more than two people are on hand to remove any limbs which are deemed dangerous to the saw operator.
You could always use a machine dedicated to gorse removal, such as an Orsi forestry flail mower, which fits onto the front of a large tractor.
However, if you are to undertake such an operation, you have to remember that these machines are designed to make short work of woody stemmed plants and, as a consequence, will not cut to an exact height. These will occasionally dig into the top soil, resulting in almost total removal of any aerial parts of the plant it comes into contact with - if total removal is required, then that's fine, but be aware that weeds and grasses will often grow faster than gorse and, as a result, could out-compete any new shoots which develop.
What do you do with the arisings?
Now onto my favourite part of gorse management - the recycling part! If your golf club or sports ground does not have access to a woodchipper, then the only other option is to burn the limbs on-site, but to do this you need to contact your local fire brigade who will send out an assessor to give guidance on where is suitable, if suitable at all that is. In some areas of the UK, or in particular councils, you may require a license from the authorities to burn or compost gorse.
Chippers can be hired on a daily basis and, not too dissimilar to a chainsaw, may require training before any usage from the greenkeepers, labourers etc. Modern chippers can munch their way through a gorse limb with ease, but I have to point out that gorse wood is reasonably soft compared to beech or oak.
Once the machine has done its work, you now have the problem of what to do with all the arisings. In a woodland environment, they can be spread out and left to decompose naturally, but this practice is not always doable in a Links environment, therefore composting is the only logical option. I talked about composting in the previous issue of Pitchcare, therefore I will not waste words on how it is developed and its uses at this time. Any larger limbs can be cut to a manageable size and stacked as eco piles, which are fantastic for our native wood dwelling creatures, such as beetles and centipedes. Depending on the size of the pile, you may be lucky enough to have a pair of ground nesting birds set up residence in the gaps created when the wood begins to decompose.
Any good for the environment?
If managed correctly, gorse is a wonderful addition to any sand (and sometimes clay and soil) based golf course. As already mentioned, the majority of the UK's smaller birds are attracted to gorse as it offers a safe haven from the larger raptor types, such as sparrowhawks and merlins, whereas the corvids - crows, rooks, magpies and the like - cannot reach the small bird's chicks, which are guarded by the thorns.
This is all very good, but is gorse a good addition to a golf course or sportsground or not? The short answer is a definite yes, however, you need to take into account that gorse will out-compete almost all other vegetation to a point where the area it is growing in may become a monoculture. Monocultures are rarely advisable in terms of environmental management, as you run the risk of pest and pathogen attack.
Polycultures (more than one type of vegetation in a field or wildflower meadow) are much more sought after simply because of the diversity they offer.
Gorse plants extract and retain plant nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium and sodium, which changes nutrient dynamics and can weaken the soil. You also need to take into account that gorse, when coppiced, will release the nitrogen back into the sand/ soil, thus acidifying the area it is growing in. This could potentially attract the 'undesirable' grasses us turf managers are doing our best to avoid, so be aware!
Another issue you need to be conscious of is the fact that gorse can possibly loosen an area by the fact no other stabilising vegetation grows underneath its canopy! The underlying sand or soil becomes bare and, as a result, increases erosion on steep slopes.
Believe it or not, unmanaged gorse quickly becomes a fire hazard during periods of dry weather (I'm writing this article from the East coast of Scotland, so the aforementioned sentence seems laughable!). Gorse is a naturally oily plant which creates a good deal of dead timber and, as a result, will burn quite easily; any decaying timber should be stacked as eco piles, remember!
The short and tall of it is that gorse, in terms of nature, is a good addition to a golf course or sportsground. It is not, however, good for the environment it is growing in. With these sentences in mind, I would choose carefully about introducing gorse to your site.
There are pros and cons to any type of environmentally minded course management and attaining the correct balance is therefore paramount.
Whenever I am asked about introducing gorse onto a site, I always suggest the words and advice mentioned in this article and then explain that gorse, when managed, is a beneficial addition to any fine turf environment, but be prepared for a good deal of subsequent winter work.
Taking into consideration the aforementioned, if you and your team have a spare few hours when the weather starts to freeze, then introducing a few small gorse shrubs to your site could attract many different types of wildlife to your fine turf environment.