In his latest article on conservation and ecology, James Hutchinson, Environmental Officer at The St Andrews Links Trust, heads eleven miles inland from the Old Course to visit Kingarrock, where golfers play with original hickory clubs from the 1900s, and hit softer, rubber-wound balls on a 9-hole course in a serene setting that makes the most of fine views and a rich natural environment
Huddled within the Fife countryside is a golf club which uses no pesticides or fungicides. The fertiliser applications are minimal, but the wildlife is plentiful. The National Trust for Scotland run Kingarrock Golf Course, which is more famously known as 'Kingarrock Hickory Golf'.
On arrival, you are able to learn about the history of the Hill of Tarvit mansion, which watches over proceedings, and guided through the families past and how they came to build a golf course on their land. However, the history, and its interesting consequent antiquity, is not the reason I visited on this occasion, nor was it to play golf.
On arriving at the greenkeeper's maintenance facility, you can't help but notice the semi ancient sweet chestnut tree which I guess is approaching the 250 year mark, possibly more, or the amount of woodland birds which seem to be quite domesticated and inquisitive. Another thing which is instantly noticeable is the passion for the environment and wildlife which oozes out of the chap I went to meet, Owen Browne.
The golf course itself is of the nine hole parkland variety, which is maintained by four mowers, two of which are trailed gangs - one for fairways and the other for the rough. The grasses which reside at Kingarrock are the fleshy type; you know the ones, Yorkshire fog and Cocksfoot, which seem to accept golf balls with consummate ease. The native trees are in magnificent condition and well placed, some with bird boxes attached.
Owen is, without doubt, a knowledgeable and educated chap, whose greenkeeping aim is to produce a golf course on a par with any other nine holers you may find, but without the chemicals - a hard task but, on meeting him, you feel if anyone can then it's this bloke. Did I mention that there's no irrigation either? A true early 1900s golf course which is trying to replicate the 1920s maintenance practices as closely as possible.
Although I mentioned the grasses being of the fat variety, Owen will have in his possession a flail rough collector which he plans to use during the winter - the aim of this procedure is to systematically thin out these grasses be removing their source of nutrients, resulting in a finer sward of bents and fescues.
The site itself is a botanists dream with ox eye daisy, selfheal, forget-me-not, lady's bedstraw, fox and cubs and marsh orchids on show - I'm quite sure there will be one or two rarities hidden away, and I am already looking forward to next spring when I can return with my magnifying glass and camera.
I must confess to being an amateur mycologist and there were one or two fruits displaying during the damp afternoon's visit, but the highlight of the day was the flock of goldfinch which we observed feeding from the many black knapweed seeds on offer. Other birds noted were great and blue tits, chaffinch, greenfinch and jay. Owen mentioned that there were raptors on site, including kestrel, tawny owl and buzzard - these will keep the rabbits in check I feel!
An extensive plan of tree planting is underway with the intention to return the site back to its former glory. Sessile oak, Pedunculate oak, European beech, Horse chestnut, Copper beech and Sweet chestnut, some of which have not been seen here for a century, have been incorporated, but I was pleased to see a good amount of decaying upright timber in place - something I am passionate about myself, as the senescence of a tree offers many places for new life to flourish, even if the new life has eight or more legs.
These decaying giants will also provide a roost site for bats, including the brown long eared variety which have taken up residence within the greenkeeping maintenance area. So to say that Kingarrock is in good environmental shape would be an understatement!
Owen is in the process of developing a corridor of native holly trees from one copse to another for the use of mice and hedgehogs - an excellent project and one which will reap rewards in later years. He's also in the process of developing a thicket from hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel which have been relocated from around the course - these have to be protected from the local deer that have a penchant for juvenile shrubs.
Another habitat, which is equally important as the woodlands and grasslands, is the small pond. Frogs and toads can be found here and there are numerous different types of dragonflies, such as hawkers and darters, present. Along with the 'botanist's dream' of wildflowers, there are one or two aquatic floras on show; yellow flag iris and soft rush being the main displays and, on closer inspection, you may find a fine selection of water-forget-me-nots scrambling through the banks. If the bees are in decline, which we know that they are, then they should be guided in the direction of Kingarrock Golf Course where they will be made most welcome by the amount of tiny blossoms on offer.
Whilst Owen's greens do have the odd broad leaved weed in them, he can be forgiven as these small weeds add to the charm of the place.
When the course was built back in 1923, no fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides were available to the amenity sector. Therefore, all you could realistically do to a golf course was mow it. The greenkeeper relied on hard work and the backbreaking task of hand weeding any areas which required it.
Owen is no different in that no chemistry is applied to the course and that the only 'herbicide' to have seen Kingarrock is his own hands - you have to ask how many of us greenkeepers (or ex greenkeepers in my case) actually hand weed their courses?
Askernish, on the island of South Uist, undertakes a similar procedure, as does the Links Trust for the most part, but given the choice, would you? Could you? It may be a reality sooner rather than later that we all have to hand weed our courses as many herbicides are taken off the market - hold that thought for a moment.
Whilst I'm on the subject of herbicides, Owen has found an interesting way of keeping the dock leaves in check; astro turf and old carpets. These textiles are simply laid upside down on the overrun areas and left until any vegetation is dead - a simple way to reduce the problem of large weeds and a quick way of creating a seed bed for the desired floras.
Another problem solved by the use of holistic methods is the incorporation of the wildflower called yellow rattle. This flower is parasitic to the point where it will outcompete most other vegetation, including broad leaved grasses and creeping thistles, both of which can become troublesome if left unchecked. One such area which was noted to be a problem was around the bunkers (three in total) and the fact that these areas had become swamped with Yorkshire fog and weeds - yellow rattle was sown in and the outcome of this can be seen in the photo, which is a carpet of thin grasses and wildflowers.
The golf course does have other problems to contend with and one of them is the moles which find Kingarrock's soil a joy to forage in. Owen sees this as a source of free material and has been collecting mole hills to use as a topsoil for a new tee he intends to build.
The views from all around the course can only be described as incredible; the old mansion and monuments are nostalgic, whilst the dovecote is slightly reminiscent of an old castle. The dovecote once stored eggs from the local doves and pigeons, but the building is no longer in use. This tower can be seen from many locations around the golf course and is just one of many interesting relics of times past.
Another artefact is the old gate post, which is now used as a line of sight marker for brave golfers, whilst the dry stone wall which runs alongside parts of the course is maintained to the highest standard - the many cracks and gaps which dry stone walls are noted for are of great value to the invertebrates which reside there.
Kingarrock is one of those places which you wish to return to as soon as you leave. Each time I have visited, I have left with the knowledge that I have seen and recorded something which I had never seen before, such is the diversity of the site. My last visit resulted in me ticking of fox and cubs from my list, whilst my first venture onto the course allowed me to photo a large female buzzard, something I had tried to do for a long time.
If you are having a poor round of golf, then you can be safe in the knowledge that there's a ginger beer and shortbread waiting for you when you complete your nine holes.
As for the future of the course, one thing is for sure, it is in a safe pair of hands, both agronomically and ecologically - well done Owen.
Kingarrock's hickory golf heritage stretches back to 1904 when a wealthy jute magnate, Frederick Sharp, first brought his family across the Tay to the National Trust for Scotland's Hill of Tarvit Mansion House, attracted by the house's proximity to St Andrews' Royal and Ancient Golf Club.
Not content with such easy access, Sharp soon set about designing a 9-hole golf course on the front lawn, which proved a popular fixture with golfers for many years.
Frederick Sharp died in 1932 and, tragically, his son Hugh lost his life in the Castlecarry rail disaster just a few years later in 1937, whilst the advent of World War II meant the course was soon commandeered for farming use to aid the war effort.
The site's great golfing heritage was finally revived in the 1990s when the National Trust for Scotland staff discovered a 1924 map of the old course, along with Frederick Sharpe's golfing bag and a number of classic golf paintings around the house.
Enthused by this discovery, David Anderson and family decided to bring hickory golf back to Hill of Tarvit, restoring the old course to its former glory and making numerous improvements to make it fully suitable for modern players, finally re-opening the course after a seventy year hiatus in June 2008.
The National Trust for Scotland took over the ownership of the course in October 2014 and recruited PGA Professional Andrew Bentley to help run it.
Today's course has a number of features to put golfers skills to the test, not least hickory clubs, and includes three bunkers of varying depths and a water feature, the cundy (or small stream) on hole 7. The wearing of plus fours is encouraged.
The original design and layout has been tweaked slightly, bringing it in line with modern safety needs. The old course had several holes which crossed each other, which made many a player holler 'fore!' and dodge flying balls!
What makes Kingarrock truly special is the unique environment that has been created, using a combination of historically-inspired groundsmanship with a few modern touches, with sheep grazing among the rough.