Visitors to Royal St George’s could obtain a free copy of a hole by hole guide to the course, which provided an opportunity to identify and appreciate the wide diversity of plants and wildlife to be found on the famous links. The guide was produced as a result of collaboration between the R&A, Royal St George’s Golf Club, English Nature, the Environment Agency and STRI.
Situated on the east Kent coast, Royal St George’s Golf Club is surrounded by the expanse of sand dunes that make up Sandwich Bay and Hacklinge Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The designation covers over 4,000 acres, (1,700 hectares) and also contains the golf clubs at Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s. Between them, the three golf courses contain up to 70% of the fixed dune habitat.
The area is considered to be the most important sand dune and coastal grassland system in south east England. This is sustained because of and not in spite of the presence of the golf courses.
In fact over 100 English golf courses are designated as SSSI. The golf clubs, which include Royal Birkdale, another Open Championship venue, work closely with the staff of English Nature to ensure that the management of these courses is consistent with their ecological importance.
Together with the English Golf Union, English Nature is co-funding a three-year initiative to provide golf clubs in England with free ecological advice.
The Open Championship attracts enormous crowds at all its venues. This provides a perfect opportunity to illustrate golf’s environmental good practice and shows the positive impact that golf can have on wildlife and habitat conservation. Golf courses can provide a long-term sustainable land use that need not be subject to intensive management.
Major events like the Open can bring about both direct and indirect conservation gains. Short-term disturbance caused by spectators can, if appropriately directed, create gaps or thin denser grass growth encouraging primary succession and the establishment of interesting mosses, lichens, wild flowers and weaker grass species. Prior to the Open much care was taken to direct spectator routings to bring about maximum benefit whilst minimising ecological impacts.
There is a commonly held perception that golf courses are manicured for a game that utilises good habitat and uses too many chemicals and too much water. In reality this is not the case, due in part to prohibitive costs and also because such practices would lead to deterioration of the turf.
Applying extensive fertiliser, pesticides and water will encourage playing surfaces to become susceptible to disease and invasion by weeds and undesirable grasses. Application of fertiliser or water to areas of rough will inevitably result in a deleterious change in sward characteristics that will not only slow play but also compromise the visual and wildlife interest.
More and more golf clubs are accepting the challenge of managing their land in a way which benefits both golf and the wider countryside and never before has the ecological management of golf courses been considered so important by people within golf itself.
At Royal St George’s an extensive environmental plan has been drawn up in conjunction with English Nature, the Kent Wildlife Trust and the STRI that identifies both the golfing and ecological objectives, thus securing longer-term interests for the area.
Royal St George’s lies in one of the driest parts of England and, with the scarcity of water in this part of Kent, water efficiency techniques and conservation measures are essential. Very little water can be stored in the soil because of its porous nature.
Irrigation is provided to maintain desired playing characteristics. The golf course irrigation system is linked to an on-site weather station so that carefully controlled and monitored amounts of water are applied. The system operates at night when evapo-transpiration is lowest and only limited areas of the turf are irrigated i.e. greens and tees. Although the system can be fully automated, hand watering remains an essential aspect of the strategy employed.
Climate change scenarios suggest that in the southern half of Britain, summers will become hotter and drier with winters being wetter, warmer and stormier. This has important implications for water resources and both the Environment Agency and English Nature are working with golf course managers to move towards sustainable water management.
English Nature www.english-nature.org.uk
Environment Agency www.environment-agency.gov.uk
Kent Wildlife Trust www.kentwildlife.org.uk
English Golf Union www.englishgolfunion.org