A new project designed to reverse the desperate plight of bumblebees and pollinating insects in the UK, by restoring and creating valuable habitats on golf courses, is being pioneered by Syngenta and the STRI.
The initial pilot project of Operation Pollinator is now running on four selected courses, to provide valuable information on the best management techniques. Operation Pollinator aims to demonstrate that golf and the environment can co-exist.
Simon Elsworth, Syngenta Turf Manager, believes golf courses could provide essential sanctuaries for bumblebees and other beneficial insect species. "Bumblebees play a crucial role as nature's pollinator, but they are in serious decline and need our help now. Helping to resurrect bumblebee populations will help to prove that golf courses can be managed in harmony with the environment."
Golf courses cover 150,000 hectares of UK land area, and creating specialist habitat on less than 0.5% of the area would still make a hugely significant impact on bumblebee numbers, according to Simon. "Golf courses provide ideal locations because they are stable, little disturbed and normally support significant tracts of land out of play. With the right management these areas could provide ideal habitat for bumblebees and other invertebrates."
Three golf clubs are currently taking part in a trials programme - Loch Lomond in Scotland; Middlesborough Golf Club in the North East and Mid-Herts Golf Club, along with a fully controlled and replicated trials site at the STRI in Bingley, West Yorkshire.
"We want to demonstrate that golf courses and sports facilities can continue to be managed to give the very best of playing conditions, alongside habitat areas managed to give opportunities for wildlife. With this approach, the overall environmental contribution of a golf course can be a net gain in biodiversity, whilst maintaining the level of inputs required to produce top quality playing surfaces."
Simon believes that even the most intensively played golf courses can find space for environmental habitat creation. For some clubs this may incorporate rough management but, in most instances, it will be out of play areas which can be left principally undisturbed. The experiences of those clubs involved in the trial and the involvement of the STRI will further give the reassurance it can be integrated onto other courses.
Results should prove extremely valuable to help other courses establish and manage wildlife rich habitats, according to Bob Taylor, Head of Ecology and Environment at STRI. He believes the management practices developed to deliver pollen and nectar rich habitat for bumblebees will be hugely beneficial for other flora and fauna on the golf course. "Improving habitat conditions for bumblebees will represent an important environmental gain with little or no detriment to the playing of the game. It is hoped that this work will generate a wider acceptance and awareness of golf's positive environmental role within the wider landscape."
"The Operation Pollinator trials will provide information and practical expertise on how best to create, improve and manage quality habitats for bumblebees in out of play areas on the golf course," he added.
Get to grips with rough
Operation Pollinator could offer a solution to managing rough more effectively for BIGGA Master Greenkeeper, Daniel Lightfoot, course manager at Bearwood Lakes in Berkshire. Many of the holes on the immaculately maintained parkland course are defined by areas of carefully placed and managed rough grasses, designed to be both visually appealing and challenging for golfers.
But, with dense ryegrass, Timothy and Yorkshire Fog dominating the rough grass mixtures, any ball that misses the fairway could be permanently lost or, at very least, take an age to find. "We are keen to get back to rough areas with a greater proportion of light fescue grasses, which will retain the renowned characteristics of the course, but pose fewer problems for the players," says Daniel. "If it can incorporate wildflowers without detracting from the playing conditions, then it could have an environmental benefit too."
One of the treatments under evaluation in the Operation Pollinator trial is a selective herbicide designed to control aggressive grasses, which could allow wildflowers sown into the fescue mixes to establish successfully.
Daniel adds "We are keen to integrate environmental features onto the course where possible, providing it does not impinge on the quality of the golf offered. For most members, the golf is paramount, but that doesn't mean that we cannot do things which can benefit both the ecology and the environment in which they are playing."
"The Operation Pollinator trial will give us a science-based indication of what can be achieved, and how best to make use of the techniques."
Bumblebees face a very uncertain future in the UK. One of the twenty species previously found has disappeared altogether, and three more are on the verge of extinction. Total bumblebee numbers have declined by over 70% in just the last twenty years, due to the loss of suitable habitats.
Creating more open wildflower rich areas of grassland will put back vital pollen and nectar rich sources for bumblebees. Encouraging the right kinds of wildflowers will be the key to longer term survival of these important species.
Areas of bumblebee habitat need not be large; experts have calculated that just 0.1 of a hectare per 100 hectares can make a significant difference to bumblebee numbers.