Around 1970, Les Swain, an Aldridge farmer and keen golfer, decided to diversify on a grand scale. He converted his 160 acres of supposedly third-rate arable land to an 18-hole golf course, despite being able to grow first-rate root crops such as parsnips, sugar beet and potatoes. The course was first played in 1971 when I took a photograph across the 5th with golfers in action. It was officially opened in 1974.
Druids Heath takes its name, not from those venerable Celtic priests in long white robes, but from Drewed Heath, the Anglo-Saxon precursor of Domesday Aldridge Heath or Common.
A non-golfer and migrant to the west midlands from the south in 1969, I remember when the land was converted, and the original public footpath that ran through it, before it was rerouted. I have watched the evolution of the course as a valuable wildlife resource up to the present day.
Equally important, its merits as a golf course are dependent on the geological history of the area, for its free drainage is a consequence of the sand and gravel subsoil laid down by the melt waters of retreating glaciers around 10,000 years ago. In their wake were carried a variety of rocks - granites and agates from Scotland and 400 million-year-old lavas from the Borrowdale area of the Lake District, when volcanoes were part of the landscape. In 1995, one of these large glacial erratics was unearthed when new bunkers were being constructed, and was set up as a public footpath marker.
The course is surrounded on all sides by arable land, with its hedgerows and copses, horse pasture, parkland, and Aldridge Cricket Club is also a neighbour. It is only a few miles from the large tract of ancient heathland known as Sutton Park, an SSSI.
Unfortunately, there is still a notion among the 'lunatic fringe' of the conservation movement that golf courses don't offer any more to wildlife than arable land. In the case of Aldridge, the course and its arable neighbour are equally important to wildlife. Over the forty years of the course's existence it has become evident how species, particularly birds, have benefited greatly from the change of land use and extended their range.
The course was purchased by the members in 1987 and, a year later, Jim Lake became Head Greenkeeper. It was he and his team who began its gradual and brilliant transformation into what must be a players' - and non-players' - paradise within an integral part of the new Forest of Mercia.
Around 1970, the first trees to be planted were mostly grey poplar. Today, the poplars are about 80 feet tall and their bark supports a number of species of lichen with their characteristic insect communities. The green woodpecker, too, has recently discovered that it can drill its nest-hole into one of the mature trees. On the downside, the heavy leaf-fall means more effort on the part of the greenkeepers to keep the golfers happy.
Forty year old silver birch, with its craggy bark growing even more lichen species, is the dominant deciduous tree on the course, forming part of the diet of seed-eating birds like winter migrants redpoll and siskin. The lichens are collected by the long-tailed tit to decorate its nest. During the breeding season of chiffchaff and willow warbler, the young leaves are food for the tiny caterpillars of moths that these summer migrants depend on. This is the tree which, at leaf-fall, not only feeds the earthworms in the semi-rough but creates lovely autumn tints to be found in the best of arboretums.
The birch's leaf-fall adds fertility to the mycelium of several species of fungi, notably the fly agaric with its white-spotted red cap, and the edible birch boletus. Occasionally, edible agarics like the horse and field mushroom appear, once coveted by an early-morning jogger friend.
As the birches have matured, so has the density of these fungi. In contrast, stands of mature pine and larch each have their own characteristic fungi, whose fruiting bodies appear at this time of year through the needle carpet. The Corsican and Scot's pine seem to favour the insectivorous long-tailed tit, coal tit and goldcrest, family parties of which are initially identified by their distinctive high-pitched contact calls.
Jim Lake admits he is a tree lover and goes to great pains to rear some species, like oak and horse chestnut, from acorns and conkers, growing them on in a tree nursery. He has also transplanted oaks, up to eight or so feet tall, taken from the margins of the course whose seeds have been forgetfully buried by grey squirrel and jay.
Yews that have grown in the wood, mentioned below, have also been transplanted along the wood side of the 7th. The trees originated from yew berries collected and eaten by mistle thrushes that had taken them from a mature yew well outside the confines of the course. Knowing of Jim's dependability in caring for trees, I donated four English walnuts that I had grown from Herefordshire nuts. These, like all the trees planted on the course, are thriving and I may help them along sometime in the future by a donation of my own ashes, knowing full well that any nuts they might bear will be filched by the grey squirrel.
1994 saw the launch of the local Forest of Mercia Woodland Scheme, whose aim was to increase the amount of woodland in the area of Walsall, the Metropolitan area covering Aldridge.
To date, Jim reckons in excess of 20,000 trees of some thirty-five species have been planted on the course. In addition, at its heart, there is a one-and-a-half acre ancient bluebell wood - Nuttall's Wood - where the dominant tree is sycamore, but also includes oak, ash, yew, holly, rowan, beech and silver birch, with a bramble understorey, which is selectively brashed in order to allow the bluebells to thrive.
The wood is also notorious for foxes that collect stray golf balls and bury them in the leaf mould, thinking they are eggs. Happily, Jim has resisted the forestry experts' advice to clear-fell the wood and plant up with oak. In the years to come, it is obvious that he and his team are going to have to apply their arboricultural skills, which include hedge-laying, to a greater extent as trees reach their life span and require management.
For over thirty years, I have monitored the density of aphids and other important dipterans, such as the St Marks fly, dependent respectively on the sap and flowers of sycamore in Nuttall's Wood, and have realised how valuable this often defiled species is to a number of bird species nesting in the wood, especially summer migrants like chiffchaff, willow warbler and blackcap. I would say that the value of the sycamore in this wood to the insectivorous bird population is more than equal to that of the oak, a statement that must sound like heresy to someone from the RSPB. Even on the last days of October 2010, I watched, through my binoculars, a blue tit feeding on the underside of the sycamore leaves. An examination of a leaf showed half a dozen winged and the fatter wingless form of the aphid, and this after the previous night's hard frost.
A few dead and dying silver birch provide nesting holes for the great spotted woodpecker, which I have observed feeding its young on the craneflies that emerge from the turf and whose 'leatherjacket' larvae are the curse of the greenkeeper. Treecreeper and nuthatch are also Nuttall's Wood residents, as is the occasional pied flycatcher. In 2005, one of the greenkeepers informed me of a treecreeper's nest in a bark crevice of one of the old silver birches, only a foot above the ground.
The wood's insect fauna is also sought after by up to a hundred swallows, resulting from two or three broods in the stables of Nuttall's Farm, the former home of Les Swain. When, in summer, the swallow families are hunting for insects over the wood and turf of the 13th, a hobby can be seen flying with them, as this spitfire of a falcon is a specialist in catching swallows. Greenkeepers tell me how they witness this event as their mowers stir up the insects that the swallows are seeking.
Before a neighbouring sand quarry was worked out and turned into a landfill site, sand martins that nested there joined the swallows over the fairway at nesting time. The sand martin is no longer on the course bird list.
Nuttall's Wood is also a regular annual sheltering place for the woodcock, a passage migrant which probes the particularly fertile rough of the fairways for earthworms. I have also recorded it sunning itself on the edge of one of the farmland hedgerows bounding the course. The sparrowhawk watches out for its prey here, mainly wood pigeon, as does the buzzard.
This year, a pair of buzzards has raised only two young, for the usual healthy rabbit population has been hit by myxomatosis, and the birds have had to supplement their diet with earthworms. I witnessed this only recently on the 13th, where a lone bird was walking up and down like a carrion crow looking for earthworms but, with its binocular vision, not needing to stop and hold its head on one side like the crow.
In the years that kestrels nest on a nearby pylon, the young have often been seen feeding on this same high protein diet. For several years, an escaped Harris hawk made a dent in the rabbit population, leaving parts of corpses strewn over the course.
In 2004, I built and put up six nest boxes in the wood, believing that nest sites were at a premium for blue and great tits. I soon realised that grey squirrels had enlarged some of them and taken them over as cosy snugs, and that the tits chose to go on a housing waiting list for their preferred conventional nesting sites. The following year, a blue tit nested in a rotten oak and, as soon as the young had fledged, a great tit moved in and reared a family.
In 2010, a blue tit discovered the perfect place to set up home: in one of the three-inch diameter steel tubular gate posts, gaining access through the slot into which the bolt fits. The regular, noisy opening and closing of the gate at the start and finish of the greenkeeper's day did not deter the hen bird from rearing a full brood of chicks. The bird obviously couldn't find a vacant tree hole, and didn't fancy the nest boxes that had not been vandalised. Perhaps it even realised that one of its main woodland predators, the weasel (a recorded predator, as is the stoat) would not be able to climb the slippery steel post, even though access was just a few feet from the ground.
In all, sixty-five species of bird, including the now rare barn owl, have been recorded over the time of the course. Although it was always present on the surrounding farmland and parkland before the golf course came, the English or grey partridge has taken over the golf course rough and increased its numbers. In 2010, a pair raised twelve young to maturity.
The long-tailed tit, which prefers gorse or dense stands of blackthorn, typical of the original heathland, in which to nest, has to resort to using the tall, dense Leylandii, which is not impregnable to magpies and, most years, they rag the nests and take eggs or young. The remaining few gorse bushes lie outside the course, along a lane and ancient drovers' road, and their regular flailing by the Council has made it impossible for this bird to use this traditional, more secure, site. Perhaps Jim Lake should consider introducing some gorse on the course! To my knowledge, only one bird, the skylark, has not adapted to the course. It is plentiful on the surrounding arable land and nests in autumn-sown barley or wheat.
It is, of course, the large expanse of turf that supports not only countless earthworms but a huge variety of flies, moths and beetles, whose larvae subsist on grass roots and which are such an important food resource for birds.
From autumn to winter, flocks of redwing and fieldfare arrive to gorge themselves, not only on the hawthorn berries in the original, retained farmland hedgerows but on the invertebrates of the turf. Each year, a pair of mistle thrushes nest in the wood and rear their brood, mainly on earthworms. Little owl and tawny owl also depend on earthworms to supplement their meat diet. Then there are moles, which burrow out from the wood and smaller planted copses into the fairways in their relentless quest for worms, so that their hills become a problem on the turf and they have to be trapped to keep the customers happy. The resident tawny owls take moles, but not in large enough numbers to keep them in check.
For a short while, the club hired a professional mole catcher, until Jim soon realised he could save money by buying some traps and setting up one of his lads to study the mole's mind, an initiative that should surely have pleased the club's treasurer.
There's no end to the value of those species of earthworm that come to the surface at night to pair up, for it is these that are taken by foxes. I have seen a pile of several hundred earthworms that had been regurgitated by an 'eyes bigger than her stomach' vixen collecting food for her newly weaned cubs.
In February 2007, golfers on the 6th were surprised to encounter three red deer stags sheltering among the trees. The adventurous animals had probably come from a herd on a nearby common, itself not a great distance from Cannock Chase. They spent several days grazing on the course, and didn't cause the damage that rogue horses sometimes inflict when they break through the fencing of their adjacent paddocks. Evidence of former deer visits can be seen on the antler-scored and resined bark of pines, showing where the animals have rubbed the velvet off their antlers.
What do the golfers think of all this effort to increase so-called biodiversity? I really don't know, because I am not a golfer. However, I do know two golfers who really appreciate it, and one of them carries his binoculars with him. I will let Laurence Gale have the last word: "We all appreciate the subliminal or conscious feeling of well being that comes from a course sat within beautiful surroundings."
That says it all for Druids Heath. Surfing the internet, I came across a golf course in Ireland also called Druids Heath, and one of the testimonials read: 'Nature's Gift to Golf'. I would say 'Golf's Gift to Nature' is an appropriate one for Druids Heath in Aldridge, and Jim Lake and his team should get some kind of award for their efforts.