Golf courses are often portrayed as ecological green deserts devoid of biodiversity and despoiling the countryside. But, high on the Surrey hills, Effingham Golf Club has turned the clock back to create a genuine ecology asset that befits the natural environment and far surpasses what was there before.
Course Manager Jon Budd
What was once intensive monoculture farmland, when the course was built, in the 1920s, is now a haven of native chalk downland. With uninterrupted views to the London skyline, it is a model of how every corner of the course can be used to create a myriad of diverse habitats, yet still offer an acclaimed top golfing experience.
For course manager, Jon Budd, environmental initiatives add another layer of complexity to turf management, but that does bring some highly rewarding benefits for the club and the greenkeeping team. "First and foremost, we are a golf club and, unquestionably, my number one priority is to provide the playing surfaces members quite rightly expect every single day."
"But where we can do that alongside the environmental features that don't interfere - and in some cases actually enhance the playing surface management - then it's a real win for all involved."
Effingham's success as the Syngenta Operation Pollinator Award 2021 winner, as part of the international Golf Environment Awards, is testament to the club's commitment to sustainable golf course management, and its members' support for the initiatives.
Jon emphasises that it all starts with insects and pollinators. He argues that targeting these species at the base of the ecological pyramid provides the foundation to support a full spectrum of biodiversity. And it is working.
"It's no good just going straight for the headline stars," he advised. "Start with the habitat features that support insects, and then you get the voles, that are the food sources for the owls and the kites, and then we have a truly sustainable ecosystem. It's not only good for the environment, but makes it a really exciting and enjoyable place to play golf and to work."
Whilst he acknowledges Effingham's 265-acre site does enable the epic scale of habitat creation, Jon believes that every course has some areas that can be beneficially managed for wildlife, however small.
The swathes of meadow are undoubtedly eye catching, but it is some of the small areas around the environs that provide wildlife packed habitats of immense value to the overall picture.
Effingham wildflower areas created around backs of tees and out of play / Log piles left and stumperies built that all add extra insect habitats
At Effingham, piles of cut wood are stacked into hibernacles - shelters and breeding sites for insects and predators; scalpings from bunkers and reconstructions provide a sand wall for ground nesting fauna and grubbed tree roots form a stumpery that is a haven for many species. The reed bed water filtration and irrigation lagoon, for example, supports a completely different habitat but further adds to the mix - without any implication on play.
But it is the wildflower meadows that define the course layout which has helped to bring back the genuine downland experience for members. Jon pointed out that such is the members' respect for the wildflower meadows that, following a wayward shot into an area, many would drop a ball and play on, rather than disturb the habitat.
In fact, he highlights that, once established, the fescue dominant wildflower meadows have removed a huge labour burden involved with cutting rough through the season. Standard practice at Effingham is to leave the meadows untouched right through the flowering period and ground nesting bird season, when a local agricultural contractor comes in and cuts and immediately bales up the risings, which are removed to the composting facility.
"Some people do leave the cut grass to dry and knock out the wildflower seeds before removing," he added. "But as we leave it late in the season, there is less opportunity for the grass to dry, and increases the risk of damaging the sward from leaving the cuttings in situ. We prefer to get them cleared, which mimics grazing, and allow the meadow to recover, that provides insects with overwinter shelter," he advised.
The downland course only uses the minimum nutritional programme, tailored by rigorous soil sampling. But, even with this, the team take extra care to ensure applications only target the managed turf and don't spread into the wildflower areas. Herbicides and other chemicals are used to maintain surfaces where required - applied with the latest sprayer technology and great care to avoid impact on surrounding areas.
Wildflowers at back of the 1st green / Effingham wildflower areas created around backs of tees and out of play
"Wildlife surveys have identified we do have a lot of species that start with the term 'Common'," he reported. "Which indeed they were when first named. But sadly, many of those species are now in serious decline with native habitat loss."
"If we can recreate any part of that missing habitat around the course, it creates another steppingstone in a species' recovery. That's really exciting and rewarding to be involved with."
Jon highlights that golf courses should be seen as a real asset in wider landscape-scale conservation initiatives, since they are often not under the same pressures faced by farmers to produce food.
"Most golf courses are fortunate to have out of play areas that can be managed to enhance their environmental value, often at little or no financial cost, or even potentially long-term savings from having to cut less."
One piece of advice that he would urge all clubs and course managers to adopt is to seek professional and specialist advice into the objectives of the planned environmental features. At Effingham, reports and support from STRI, Forestry Commission and Surrey Wildlife Trust have all been instrumental in driving forward initiatives.
"That way you always have the back-up reference to the reports as explanation and justification for what has been undertaken and why," he urged. "But it's still up to the individual greenkeeper to adopt and implement the options in a way that will be acceptable to the club and can be fitted into existing workloads."
For sure it's not all been perfect and there have been failures along the way, Jon recalls, particularly with challenges of wildflower establishment. "But, as we have gained more experience, it has become more successful, and we are keen to share the knowledge with others. The one thing we have learned is to give nature time and space for its own recovery."
Woodland cleared back to make space for wildflower areas: left to right year 1, 2 and 3
Having scraped back soils and reduced fertility, orchids that had been missing for years have started to appear. Some are very rare and still kept secretively nurtured, but year on year numbers are steadily recovering. Helibore orchids have a unique ecosystem to spread mycelia on the root systems of beach trees, whilst the bee orchid is a beautiful addition to the site's immense resource of flora.
For the grassland restorations, where dense undergrowth has been removed and woodland thinned, or removed, graded bare soil has been sown with a bespoke wildflower mix made up to mimic the existing natural fauna.
"Then, in the first year, we cut and cut again the establishing sward. That really helps to supress invasive weeds, whilst the perennial wildflowers are happy to get roots established. It doesn't look like much in the first and second years, when we cut and remove again, but by the third year it really starts to pay dividends." He reiterates that having the Wildlife Trust management plans gives him and the club confidence that it's the right route and techniques.
Jon also highlights they have focused initially on areas where the tree removal has also been hugely beneficial to let light and air flow into surfaces. "We even did a short YouTube video on light spectrum and plant requirements, which fascinated members who never considered the science involved."
Effingham Golf Club's environmental duty of care starts at the club gates, where verges that were once mown down tightly by the council are now carefully cut by the greenkeeping team, at a height and around wildflowers that are allowed to bloom.
In fact, Jon is even more enthusiastic that it goes beyond what they are achieving at the club. "More members are looking at what we are doing, and thinking how they can replicate that at home in their own gardens. That really helps to cement what we are doing around the course, but also reinforces that every single area of wildlife habitat, no matter how big or small, is of value.
Course wildflowers with London backdrop / wildflower meadow
Whilst, for most greenkeepers, the frequently asked question from members is how can they make their lawn look as good as the golf course, Jon and the team are now more likely to be asked how can they establish wildflowers in their garden. And it's a question he's only too happy to help with.
"Awareness of environmental issues is now high on the agenda in every walk of life and the golf course has to reflect that. The number of electric cars in the car park increases by the day. Members are genuinely interested, often led by the ladies section and the younger members, but the movement is only in one direction."
"I can see a day when the environmental policy and credentials of the club will be a key deciding factor in where people want to play and where they can say they are proud to be a member. That has real financial weight and value for the club."
He cited the example of posting a picture of a huge skip of waste disposable cups, generated from the clubhouse and half-way house, that overnight triggered a switch to more golfers bringing their own recyclable cups to use - along with a 20p discount on the cost of a drink! They're quite used to doing it in Waitrose, but just needs a small shift in mindset to apply it to the golf club too.
Jon believes engaging with members on ecological and environmental issues elevates their understanding and appreciation of the greenkeeping team far above 'simply managing grass'.
Reservoir and reed bed
His annual ecology open evening walks now attract in excess of 150 members, friends and village residents. With the knowledge he, deputy Gary Holland, and the rest of the team can deliver it really elevates the members' perceptions and appreciation of the team. Jon finds the level of interest is getting more and more involved each year, which motivates the team to keep progressing with new ideas, and encouragingly welcome the fact that people have bought into the initiatives.
Communication with members is an ongoing process through conventional newsletters and emails, along with developing information boards for around the course. Jon's YouTube videos have been an extremely effective route to help explain plans and actions with members; primarily since the environmental features are engaging and an attractive backdrop, but also because they can see directly what the impacts will be on their course.
Jon identifies it has also transformed the club's relationship with the village and neighbours, with a better understanding of the plans and changing perception of the course. Jon is now elected on the Parish Council and actively engaged in developing wildlife and habitat creation initiatives for the village too. He's also looking to bring the local school children to the course to study and learn from the environmental work.
For Jon is adamant that, after his fourteen years at Effingham, the environmental progress cannot be a passing fashion, but must form an integral part of the club's business and success for the generations to come.
Congratulating Jon and the Club on its success in winning the Syngenta Operation Pollinator Award 2021, the company's project manager, Caroline Carroll, said: "Jon's experience at Effingham has shown that, with such positive action, there is the chance to make transformational gains for the environment. Given commitment and time, habitats and their value to wildlife gets better and better."
"What is also so exciting is that, whilst Jon has achieved this on a vast scale, there is clear recognition that everyone can replicate bits of this on every course. Cumulatively, that can add up to an immense national environmental resource."
"It is a real asset for the industry to have Jon as a champion of Operation Pollinator and so willing to share his experience," she added.
Operation Pollinator provides a framework for golf courses to become involved with environmental initiatives, primarily to promote wildflower habitats, along with wider biodiversity. It enables courses to share experiences and develop best practice, along with learning from extensive STRI research. There is no financial, size or time commitments - simply the desire to enhance ecological resources and promote the positive actions of the golf industry.
"Throughout the Operation Pollinator project we've found that, if you put the habitat back, the wildlife will find it," highlighted Caroline. "Monitoring of projects has found numerous examples of 'lost' or rare species that reoccur when habitats are restored. That demonstrates the incredible ecological value that golf courses can offer, as well as the publicity value for a club to highlight what it has achieved and what the industry can contribute."
Golf Environment Awards
The Golf Environment Awards (GEA) aim to recognise, reward and promote outstanding individuals and golf courses - no matter how big or small - for the time and effort they have put into protecting and preserving their unique surroundings.
STRI Ecologist and Awards Manager, Meg Stone, added: "Golf courses are seeing tangible results from introducing environmentally sustainable management projects across their golf courses."
"These projects are achieving an increase in habitat varieties, improving playing experiences for golfers and providing a positive contribution to wildlife."
"With the ever-increasing spotlight on environmental matters, it is fundamentally important for golf courses to assess what they can do to achieve environmental sustainability, while continuing to maximise the enjoyment of golf."
Meg urges all golf clubs and course managers who believe their club is providing a positive contribution to the environment to enter the awards.