Before I get too far in to writing this article I have a confession to make. I am not a golfer. I have never played golf. The closest I have come to doing so was at the age of six when I discovered a set of ancient clubs in the cellar of my childhood house when our family moved there in the early 1990s. The trouble was that they were nearly as big as I was at the time.
Golf bizarrely returned to my life during my years as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I chose to write my final year history dissertation on earthworms (available here if you happen to be interested…), looking specifically at how human beings have interacted with and written about them since Darwin’s treatise, which was published in 1881. Inevitably, my work took me to the Soil Association library, trawling through agricultural and horticultural documents. However, it was by chance that I came across a number of golfing handbooks, which outlined a fascinating story: that of golf greenkeepers’ war on earthworms. If you look out on a lawn with a healthy population of earthworms you should see hundreds and maybe thousands of little earthworm casts, excreted organic material that has passed through the alimentary canal of an earthworm. For a gardener these castings are like gold as they are rich in water soluble nutrients that are immediately available to plants. However, for a golf greenkeeper of the early to mid-twentieth century they were a nuisance as they ‘ruined’ their previously perfect green, only created through hours upon hours of hard and meticulous work. For greenkeepers the earthworms had to go, and this often meant using toxic chemicals such as mercuric chloride (HG2Cl2) or sodium cyanide (NaCN).
‘I was almost at my wits’ end, but was by no means beat in the battle, so looked about for another weapon to circumvent my enemy. At last I hit on something that was really of some good. I got on the right side of one of the members, who was a wholesale druggist and I persuaded him to give me a quantity of corrosive sublimate.’
The above is a quote from Peter Lees, a greenkeeper from Edinburgh, who published a handbook for greenkeepers in 1918 called Care of the Green.
Greenkeepers of the early twentieth century also used rotenone (derris dust) and mowrah meal as well as formaldehyde and these substances worked their way into water courses and poisoned fish.
This is my context for golf. Limited but seen through the eyes of a six year old child, a historian (and a writer on conservation issues). As a sport I see those who play it as incredibly skilful but personally I won’t be taking it up anytime soon.
How much land is taken up by golf courses today?
There are around 2000 golf courses in Britain although there are contrasting figures stating how many hectares of land they are spread over. Figures for England vary between 5721ha (the UK National Ecosystem Assessment) and 270,000 ha (housing consultant Colin Wiles). The Scottish Golf Union does not have a county by county breakdown of golf courses so it is difficult to tell the area that they take up. However, in St Andrews there are 12 courses.
The county in England with the densest golfing territory is Surrey which has 103 clubs at an average size of 45ha (some basic maths makes this 4635ha).
So, when it comes to the environment, is it a good or a bad thing? Obviously greenkeeping has come on enormously since the days of Peter Lees and today there is far more concern (and regulation) for the environment.
The majority area of a golf course is of course, by its nature, a vast expanse of shortly trimmed lawn. It lacks in wildlife potential and is quite rightly looked upon by most conservationists as a desert. However, there are other areas of land on golf courses that are actually positively managed for conservation. As Britain becomes increasingly built upon could we see golf courses as an opportunity for conservation? If managed appropriately could they provide a much needed green lung for species?
Almost all golf courses will have expanses of rough grassland which are not intensively managed as the greens and fairways and may even be out of bounds to players. These are valuable areas.
Depending on their specific nature these areas can be managed to protect wetland, heathland or perhaps even wildflower meadow or woodland habitats. This guest blog article on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website from a few years ago shows what can be done on gold courses to improve prospects for wildlife.
What could be done on golf courses to improve conservation efforts?
Introducing areas of rough grassland on courses can benefit wildlife. The specific grassland species will vary depending on the environmental conditions of the course (nutrient availability, moisture availability and pH).
Heathlands rely on human intervention to survive. It was originally created by the clearance of forests and conversion to agricultural land. By removing trees the soil is exposed, nutrients leach and soil can become more acid. This makes way for gorse, heather, bilberry, broom and purple moor grass. If left unmanaged then pioneer trees such as silver birches will try to take over. Heathlands are good habitat for birds such as Dartford warbler and Woodlark as well as slow worms and smooth snakes. By draining and preventing succession, heathland can come to thrive on golf courses.
Ponds and lakes do well on golf courses and so long as care is taken to prevent nutrients leaching into the water they can provide great benefits for biodiversity. Ponds can obviously be used to store water for times of drought or hold water to ‘slow the flow’ to prevent flooding elsewhere.
Areas of trees can look good on golf courses, so they have an aesthetic and amenity value, and they also help to shield golfers from wind. They can diversify the habitat availability on golf courses and provide space for a whole range of plants and animals.
Conclusions – could more be done?
Lots of golf courses now have conservation plans and work to improve biodiversity on their courses. However, there is always more that could be done. As the green belt is put under increasing pressure and farmers are told they need to boost yields, other areas of land, such as golf courses, will have to play their part in conservation efforts.
If you know of any specific examples of conservation work being undertaken on golf courses I’d love to hear about them. Please post in the comments below.