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Is golf missing a birdie?

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 12:17 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

With Ryder Cup fever approaching, I thought I'd look for a nature angle on this year's tournament and golf courses in particular.

Traditionally, golf courses don't have a particularly good reputation for being wildlife friendly - mainly due to the amount of pesticides and water used to keep the greens looking pristine.

It's ironic when you consider the sport's environmentally friendly origins when men in Scotland wandered around hitting pebbles with sticks.

Five hundred years or so later and British golfers had rapidly fallen in love with America's green and sterile courses and wanted the same back home. But perfect greens come with a hefty environmental price tag.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that acres of green grass would be good for the environment but without wild plants to attract the insects and the birds and mammals to eat them - they simply become green deserts.

Then of course there's the construction of the courses themselves - digging up habitats to create all the twists and turns of the course as well as all the bunkers and water hazards.

Even the 'water hazards' can become devoid of life - becoming contaminated with pesticides after periods of heavy rain.

Besides the pest control, golf courses consume a staggering amount of water. A Unesco World Water Development report found that an 18-hole golf course can use as much as 2.3 million litres of water every day! Which isn't an easy statistic to swallow in our current world climate.

BBC Panorama recently covered the state of 'Britain's disappearing wildlife'. In that programme, Pavan Sukhdev from the UN Environment Programme stated that businesses in the future are going to have to re-think the way they operate and become far more environmentally aware; if we're to avoid paying higher food and water prices.

But it's not all doom and gloom as some golf courses are now turning their backs on this unsustainable method of land management.

Conservation groups such as the RSPB actually believe that golf courses can become wildlife sanctuaries for struggling bird populations such as skylarks, woodlarks and corn buntings.

So, golf courses can actually be good for wildlife - especially coastal courses which have an array of different habitats and species.

A golfer about to tee-off

A golfer about to tee-off

Roughly 140,000 hectares of out-of-bounds areas exist on UK golf courses which could be used as wildlife highways to create natural corridors between rural and urban habitats - something the Wildlife Trusts are already doing via their Living Landscape initiative.

New Malton Golf Club is an 18-hole course in Hertfordshire, which claims to have been chemical-free for a year, and is planning to apply to the Soil Association for organic certification.

The course's out-of-bounds areas are currently home to woodpeckers, kestrels, owls, pheasants, hares, rabbits and stoats and the owners also plan to graze animals and grow fruit on the land.

Many golf courses in the UK also overlap into SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).

The Royal St David's Course in Gwynedd is one such site and lies within the Morfa Harlech SSSI - designated for its coastal and fixed dune grassland and diversity of wildlife.

The course has a careful programme of land management and over the years has trialled many different techniques for grass cutting and managing it's rough areas.

The Royal St David's Course. Image by Visit Wales

The Royal St David's Course. Image courtesy of Visit Wales

Parts of the course wind their way through sand hills and species-rich dune plain grasslands.

Dune areas are often left untouched apart from the occasional scrub or tree removal whilst grassy areas are trimmed to various sizes throughout the year to suit both wildlife and golfers alike.

The out-of bounds areas provide excellent habitat for skylark, meadow pipit, brown hare, amphibians and rodent species which in turn provide food for kestrels and owls. Meanwhile bare sections of the course provide ideal basking habitat for rare sand lizards.

So, the Ryder Cup course has a lot to live up to; as the eyes of the world focus in on Wales for three days this October.

Jim McKenzie, Director of Golf Courses and Estates Management at The Celtic Manor Resort, said: "The Twenty Ten course was built in harmony with its environment and with the close consideration for protected species like otters, toads and dormice."

The third hole on the Twenty Ten Course. Image courtesy of the Celtic Manor Resort:

The third hole on the Twenty Ten course. Image courtesy of the Celtic Manor Resort

"Since its conversion from intensive farmland, many indigenous grasses, plants and wildlife have returned to the land upon which the course is built".

"All the golf courses feature 100 per cent self-sustained irrigation with rain water taken from these lakes and a specially constructed reservoir".

"We are committed to continually improving our own management to ensure care for the environment continues to be a feature of The Celtic Manor Resort's staging of The 2010 Ryder Cup."

There is also a lot of work under way to look at how the event's carbon footprint can be effectively managed by identifying the main greenhouse gas generating activities and looking at ways of reducing them.

So, it would appear that golf courses can be both good and bad for the environment, depending on how they are managed.

Golf courses are ultimately designed for human enjoyment but if managed correctly - taking into account: nature conservation, the landscape, cultural heritage, water useage, turf grass management, waste and energy consumption - they can provide vital habitat for wildlife of all shapes and sizes.


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