Gorse is a very important component of links courses around the UK. It provides shelter and nesting habitat for birds and mammals, as well as supplying a year-round nectar and pollen resource for invertebrates.
Whilst the benefits to wildlife are extensive, gorse is not without its downfalls, particularly for those that have to maintain it. Gorse requires management on an annual basis to retain its health and vigour. Plus preventing its spread into more important habitats, such as lowland heath and dune grassland. Over time, it can become overly dominant, taking over other vegetation and resulting in an influx of nitrogen-loving species such as Yorkshire fog and cock’s-foot – this due to its ability to fix nitrogen.
Links courses contain a mosaic of different habitats, including gorse and other scrub along with the vast swathes of dune grassland and sometimes dune slack and heather. When gorse dominates, we lose that habitat diversity, which in turn leads to a decrease in the wildlife value of the course. Alternatively, from an aesthetic point of view, when gorse gets out of hand we often lose the classic links topography that the courses were built upon, resulting in flat, enclosed holes. Not to mention the increased incidence of balls getting lost!
Whilst it may look alarming to begin with, gorse management is necessary. At Gailes Links (part of the Glasgow Golf Club) and Kilmarnock (Barassie) Golf Club, extensive patches have been completely removed whilst others have simply been coppiced to spur healthy growth. Leaving stepping stones of gorse throughout the landscape. The works at these two clubs have been undertaken as part of a general course restoration programme. Where the greenstaff have worked extremely hard to re-establish heather, improve the dune grasslands and firm up the greens and approaches. All important characteristics of classic Ayrshire links golf.
Where gorse has been completely removed it has been replaced with bare sand scrapes. This creates extremely valuable habitat for mining bees, digger wasps and rare beetles. Whilst it may look like unfinished work, these areas will recolonise over time and continue to support a variety of wildlife.
Think of this process as knocking back natural succession, allowing for new plants to establish naturally, much like a natural dune system. Various other patches of bare sand will be sown with nectar and pollen-rich wildflowers such as kidney vetch. The sole food plant of the recently reintroduced small blue butterfly.
Several golf clubs along the Ayrshire coastline, including Gailes Links and Kilmarnock (Barassie), are now part of the Nectar Network. A project set up to create a 40-mile-long pollinator corridor from Irvine to Girvan. This landscape approach to conservation has successfully brought the small blue back to Ayrshire. It also linked a variety of stakeholders together to drive awareness for many of our declining pollinating insects.
You may have noticed similar bare sand areas at last year’s Open Championship at Royal Troon. Perhaps you have visited Royal Porthcawl recently to see their excellent work. One of the biggest reasons so many links have been undertaking this kind of work over the last few years is due to the international importance of sand-based habitats being outlined by the statutory bodies for nature conservation (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage etc). Such habitats, including bare sand, are in drastic decline along with the wildlife associated with them, so we are very well placed within golf to do something about it.