"I want to prove to the world of golf that you can encourage wildlife and reduce chemical use, but still have a great course which makes a profit"
In the past, golf courses have been criticised by green groups for excessive water, pesticide and fertiliser use, but a joint publication announced last November by the RSPB and golf's governing body, the R&A, called Birds and Golf Courses: A Guide to Habitat Management, marks a change in attitude by the industry. This new handbook highlighted golf courses across the UK where wildlife-friendly measures have been a success, and aims to help golf clubs do more for birds and other wildlife, especially those whose habitat is under threat.
Across the UK there is said to be 140,000 hectares of rough and out-of-bounds areas on golf courses which could be managed for wildlife. As a comparison, this is the same sized area covered by all the RSPB's UK nature reserves.
"We already have a thriving group of herons and a large number of woodpeckers here, as well as barn owls, otters, water voles, badgers and a stoat, several of which are endangered species, and it's something our members love to see," says Paul Stevenson. "One group regularly come along early in the morning to play when the wildlife is at its most active, and then they come and tell us what they've seen."
"I want to prove to the world of golf that you can encourage wildlife and reduce chemical use, but still have a great course which makes a profit."
Set amongst 230 acres of peaceful and gently undulating Cambridgeshire countryside, yet only eight miles from Cambridge city centre, New Malton Golf Club's 18 hole course slopes down towards and beyond the picturesque River Cam. The course was originally designed in consultation with Bruce Critchley, the Sky Sports commentator and former Walker Cup Player, and opened in 1994.
Paul Stevenson works alongside co-directors Brian Mudge, the club's golf professional and one of the UK's few PGA Fellows, and John Atkinson, who is that rare thing on golf courses, a full-time ecologist. Brian is an experienced county junior coach, and is busy building up junior membership for the first time at New Malton, while John's job is to manage the club's horticultural and conservation activities.
"The three of us have been talking about this for the last five or six years, says Paul. "We all have our own passions, but we also all share the same outlook, which is to show the world of golf that it can be done - there is no truly organically run golf course in Britain as far as I'm aware."
"New Malton is also designed to be an antidote to the traditional stuffiness and elitism of golf, with no barriers," he adds. "We want people to enjoy themselves and have fun - there's no dress code, for example, but we do have a 'code of respect', and we actively encourage children, as they are the future of golf. We are trying to set up sponsorships and scholarships, for example, particularly to enable underprivileged kids to learn the game, play and develop their skills."
"Membership costs just £115 annually, and it's £10 to play during the week or £15 on weekends. The course is currently 6700 yards long, but we will be constructing new tees to take it over 7000 yards. This work will be done by course constructors, Contour Golf, who are also supplying all our grass seed, exclusively from DLF Trifolium."
"We were looking for the right site for quite a while and, when we found New Malton, it was perfect for what we wanted to do. The fairways, roughs and greens only cover around 65 acres altogether, with the rest providing what we need to do the conservation work on a big enough scale to make an impact."
"The previous pay-and-play golf course was laid out like a championship course, but its condition was quite poor when we took it over last summer. Fortunately, from our point of view, they already had a minimal input system in place, which was quite beneficial for wildlife. They hadn't used any fertiliser on the fairways or rough areas for at least six years, apart from liquid seaweed sprays, but overall the course was poorly managed."
"The soil here is chalky clay, and I had assumed the fairways would be a solid pan, as I couldn't get a soil profiler to even go into the ground during last summer's drought. However, when we dug down I was astonished to find one of the best root systems of any golf course I've ever seen. There was around eight inches of strong root growth and no pan at all, just very friable soil going all the way down the profile."
"The organic matter content has been measured at 13 per cent, which is twice as much as the average for clay soils of this type, so that's a good start. After some recent flooding at the end of February, the course suffered 40mm of rain in 24 hours and was under water up to six feet deep in places - however, a day later, we were able to open eight holes, which were bone dry, and I think the overall root structure had a lot to do with the course's quick recovery."
"We still need to embark on a major programme of aeration on the greens, most of which consist of 70 to 80 percent poa annua, and the rest bentgrass. We inherited around 50mm (2in) of root growth only on the greens, so we're using solid spikes and Thatchaway units, plus a sarrel roller, once or twice a week, to get air into them, followed by a compost spray. However, we won't overseed the greens until the end of the season when, hopefully, conditions will be right for fescues to grow and thrive in."
"On the fairways we are going to deep scarify, overseed and compost to further increase organic matter, although controlling the growth of weed grasses in particular will be a problem. We will try to scarify little and often, using a Striegel high speed spring-tine cultivator that folds out to 8m. This takes out the weeds but doesn't rip out the fescues - we're thinking of putting it on to the front of our John Deere rotary mower to see if that helps to speed up the process."
"One of the biggest problems is the rough, which have incredibly uneven growth, so we will need to deep scarify three or four times, remove all the debris, and then we'll overseed those in the autumn."
"All the grass clippings from the greens, tees and fairways will be collected and used in a 'tea composting' system - effectively this is a giant tea bag, in which material is heated for up to 48 hours, with fungal additives such as yucca plant and fish extracts to help multiply the bacteria. We have linked up with biological specialists Symbio, and solely use their totally organic range of treatment products on the course. The compost will be applied little and often on the tees, greens and fairways, probably every couple of weeks from late March right through to December."
"We are also going to try and use dwarf clover as a nitrogen fixer. This is a new method of sustainable grass management, with the potential to produce around 70 units of natural N per year. I know most greenkeepers would be horrified at introducing clover to a golf course, but we're going to see if it works this year and, if it does, we'll use it more widely in future. If everything goes to plan, in two or three years the fairways should be top quality."
"The greens are already looking very green, even in mid-winter. We've been regularly spiking and topdressing them, and the immediate surrounds, with a zeolitic rock fertiliser, although you need to do this six or seven times for every equivalent spray application over the same period. This is designed to increase root growth and firm up the greens, as well as encourage water retention so that we can cut down on our overall water usage - it should also make them more drought resistant in the summer."
"We are also topdressing the greens once a month with pure sand. This has already had a very positive effect on firming up the greens over the winter, and has kept them a good colour as well. Two consecutive nights of heavy frosts after the flooding, down to minus seven degrees, meant the grass looked pretty awful across the course, but once we'd taken a cut off the top it quickly started to look much greener."
"Admittedly, managing a golf course organically is a lot of hard work, so we need the commitment of our greenkeeping staff, Jason Clark and Stephen Fletcher, but they've really bought into the concept now. When you are having to resort to mechanical methods of weed control, for example, you have to be prepared to do more physical work to achieve good results. If you are going to commit to this approach, though, you have to commit fully and take what comes. You cannot just do it ninety percent of the time - that's like being a vegetarian six days a week."
Other plans for the site are equally ambitious. Amongst the many projects already underway are: the planting of lavender beds to attract bees, so that the honey can be used and sold in the clubhouse restaurant; the establishment of a fritillary water meadow, which would rely on flooding from the River Cam; a fruit orchard and cider press; a one acre vegetable plot, again for growing produce for the club's own use - this will be split to compare and contrast organic and biodynamic cultivation methods; and a children's education centre built in the woodland, for use by local schools, with a kitchen to demonstrate the nutritional aspects of organically grown food.
"We want to make the whole site accessible for education as well as entertainment," says Paul Stevenson. "We will also have a link to a neighbouring Scope home for cerebral palsy children, who will be encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables here, with specially built ramps and pathways to allow them easy access."
The biggest non-playing areas on the course will be turned over to ancient meadowland, which will be fenced off and grazed with rare cattle and sheep. These areas will also produce good quality hay and sustain rare species of wildlife.
"We have joined up with the RSPB, whose headquarters are just a few miles away, to establish the ancient meadowlands," explains Paul. "Wimpole Hall, our neighbouring National Trust property, has traditional livestock, including shire horses and rare breed Longhorn, Irish Moiled and British White cattle, as well as antique farm equipment for replicating ancient methods of tillage and harvesting," says Paul. "We have also gone into partnership with a local farmer to graze his Lincoln Red cattle here."
"We are doing research on the best seed mix to put into these meadowland areas. Encouraging the correct wildlife species will help to control pests and diseases on the golf course. So, if we attract a large bird population, we can effectively control worms. Reduced pesticide use also means an increase in beneficial wildlife, so stoats can keep the rabbit population down naturally, for example."
"If you take the time to explain that we're going organic, the club members are very supportive of what we're trying to achieve - we certainly need them to buy into what we're doing as well. Everything is an experiment, as there is no set standard for organic golf. Basically, we are trying to write the rule book here, to show that it can be done effectively and beneficially, while reducing chemical usage to zero."
"We are keen to enroll like-minded people in this project, too," adds Paul. "I'd be very happy to exchange ideas and advice with others, as I believe we really can't achieve what we're trying to do here alone. We need to spread the word, and involve not just our local community, but the whole community of golf."
As we were going to press, we learned that the club had taken on a new head greenkeeper, Ben Scrivener (26) who, after leaving Writtle College in 2003, joined as assistant greenkeeper at Benton Hall Golf Club. He worked his way through the ranks to become acting course manager. Ben says he is very excited by what is happening at New Malton and is looking forward to the challenge.
Paul Stevenson and his co-directors took over the course at New Malton, which was in generally poor condition, in August 2009, and this coincided with John Deere introducing its new range of hybrid walk-behind and ride-on greens and fairway mowers. As a result, the club bought the first 8000e E-Cut lightweight three-wheeled fairway mower sold in the UK, as well as a 220e walk-behind greens mower and a 2500e triplex greens mower, on a five-year John Deere Credit lease package from local dealer A J & R Scambler & Sons at Bourn in Cambridgeshire.
"Reduced fuel consumption is a major feature of these new mowers for me," says Paul. "If I can eventually convert them to use biofuels, this will make them even more eco-friendly, with even lower emissions. When you're running a golf course equipment fleet, fuel and emissions savings are a significant factor, and we're aiming to make considerable savings in these areas."
"I believe John Deere mowers are the best on the market," he adds. "In particular, the new 220e walk-behind mower is a big improvement on previous models, with its floating head. The 8000e fairway mower, equipped with grass boxes, is also a very versatile machine - because of its manoeuvrability, we can use it on the tee boxes as well as on the fairways, as it cuts more quickly than a triple mower. We're quite excited about this new machine and what it can achieve for us on this course."
"We will be hand mowing the greens at 3.5 to 4mm three or four times a week in season for a better finish, and only use the triple at weekends just to keep ahead of the growth. Everything we do here has a reason, economic as well as environmental. I truly believe we can run the course more economically using our own resources and methods, with no detriment to good quality golf."
"It's not just a question of throwing money at it, we have to do the job realistically. The finance package was a very good deal for us in that respect - we know what our maintenance costs are going to be for the next two years, and the lease is costing us considerably less than our previous package with depreciation and repair costs."
"We know we are going to make an impact with these new machines," says Paul. "The investments we are making show that we are totally committed to improving the course, and to our future plans for the club and the local environment."
Photo caption: Left to right: Greenkeepers Jason Clark and Stephen Fletcher, Gordon White from dealer A J & R Scambler & Sons, New Malton Golf Club director Paul Stevenson and dealer Ed Scambler, with the John Deere fleet including the new E-Cut hybrid mowers.