Royal Birkdale Golf Club played host to another significant event this year when over 130 nature conservation specialists from 15 countries visited the links as part of a European Dune Symposium hosted by the Sefton Coast Life Project, an initiative funded by the European Union.
Although it was only a couple of months since thousands of golf fans had streamed over the dunes to watch The Open Championship, the site had recovered remarkably and was much appreciated by the critical-eyed ecologists.
For most of the delegates it came as a refreshing surprise to learn of the active partnership between a famous golf club and local environmental interests. There before them stood Chris Writtle, head greenkeeper, alongside Paul Birchall, water resources manager for the Environment Agency, and members of the Sefton Coast Life team, explaining how golf and conservation can work together to good effect.
This theme was picked up in the Symposium itself with a paper by David Stubbs, executive director of the European Golf Association Ecology Unit, on golf courses as catalysts for the conservation of coastal habitats. He emphasised that effective nature conservation in Europe involves much more than protected areas and regulations. On some coastal sites golf courses have provided a last line of defence against encroaching urbanisation, tourist development or intensive agriculture.
As managed environments, golf courses are ideal for active conservation measures, managing or restoring habitats and creating new features. While remaining aware of potential impacts through disturbance of fragile habitats, abstraction of water and use of chemicals, conservationists should recognise the excellent potential for golf to play a significant role in promoting nature conservation to a substantial and receptive audience outside traditional conservation targets. This is the basis for the Ecology Unit’s campaign “Committed to Green” which is rapidly gaining recognition among the European environmental movement.
A special workshop session focussed on the issue of golf courses in relation to the EU Habitats Directive and the designation of Natura 2000 sites (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas). Dr Tom Curtis from the Irish Heritage Service led the discussion, expressing concern about a current spate of new golf course developments on fragile dune systems in the west of Ireland. Workshop delegates who included representatives from the R&A and the English Golf Union, agreed that intact sites of high ecological value deserve proper protection and are not appropriate for any new development, golf or otherwise.
There was also, however, wide recognition of the historical role of golf courses as agents for the conservation of coastal habitats. In England, Belgium and the Netherlands there are several candidate Special Areas of Conservation which include golf courses. This recognises the potential compatibility between long-term golf course management and nature conservation. A vivid example was given by Rick Schoon, an ecologist from the Amsterdam Water Company, who reported that golfing activity at De Kennemer Club had been a vital factor in preserving the special ecological character of the fixed dune environment.
A key message from the symposium was that effective coastal zone management can only be achieved through an integrated approach, bringing together all relevant interest groups. Golf clubs are vital players in this debate and share many of the same concerns as conservationists – problems of coastal erosion and loss of habitat through scrub encroachment. The Sefton Coast Life Project, which involved active co-operation with all seven links courses along the Sefton coast, is a leading example for this partnership approach in action in Europe.