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Shifting baselines and traditional management – Taylor talks

Ecology, Environments, Features / 12th January 2018

by Bob Taylor, STRI Head of ecology and environment

To kick-off my first ‘Taylor Talks’ column I’m going to discuss two related and very important aspects of golf course management – shifting baselines and traditional management.

Your first question is probably ‘what does that actually mean?’ To answer, we must consider what our own definition of golf course management is.

Some traditional greenkeepers will think of golf course management as maintenance, almost exclusively confined to the ongoing management and improvement of the putting and playing surfaces. Newer generations of greenkeepers, who have attended modern greenkeeping colleges or worked alongside proactive course managers, are likely to have a more holistic approach. This is where ecological management forms an almost equal element, something that perhaps helps in member retention through the enjoyment of playing within such special landscapes. They will also recognise sustainable working and its importance in future proofing.


Greenkeepers assessing golf course woodland

Greenkeepers assessing golf course woodland


However, when we think of management, one thing that should be relatively consistent is the baselines to which we work to.

The problem here is our perception of what is or should be normal. Who mapped the original baselines? What we regard as normal is often what we recall from our youth even though a much richer or positive state existed before. We constantly hear statements such as ‘the amount of fescue over the last 15 years on this green has doubled’ and that sounds great but what was the baseline before that? If the fescue content was degraded 15 years ago then even though the baseline has shifted it is still degraded.

It’s the same with fish in a river. Recently I was thrilled to read that “fish numbers have increased to twice the levels noted thirty years ago”. Initially that sounds very positive, but what were the numbers back in the 1800s? If we accept what we remember as a young greenkeeper as the norm then the baseline has clearly shifted, and for future generations it will be much harder to realise and redress the balance.

Some greenkeepers will have longer memories than others, but when we talk of management we can only look back as far as our memories will allow, ie: how the greens looked and played in the day. In the same way that chocolate bars were always bigger and better in your youth. What is missing here is the knowledge of how those same surfaces performed further back than that. Were the greens better? Has the bird population decreased? Were Cadbury’s Dairy Milk huge in 1915? etc etc.


Tens of thousands of starlings start their murmuration.  In days gone by starlings would have regularly dominated the skyline.

Starling numbers are declining, as we can see in this fragmented group



It’s the same with traditionally managed hay meadows, heathlands and woodlands. We can all relate to what we remember when we growing up but when we use the word traditional we perhaps are thinking much further into the past than that. Perhaps those meadows supported more orchids ‘when I were a lad’ but what were they like before I was a mere glint in the milkman’s eye. Each one of us will have a different start point when we think of management, that’s not wrong it’s just different. We are bound to hear the older greenkeepers stating just how good the course or those greens were. And no doubt as we move from 2017 to 2025 we will hear similar statements from younger generations as they age and ponder times gone by.

So we all work to different baselines and we can shift these depending upon our recollections. Some of us including myself may be able to offer a little more by way of background as to times before your baselines but that is only possible through reading and considerable research.

If we agree with the above then it follows that traditional management is a tricky concept to determine. My greens are managed traditionally but what does that mean? How far back is the person thinking, 40 years? – Or to when golf courses were first laid out? Hollow coring would have been occasional and carried out by hand but now we use machines. Were the greens better then or did we simply fail to record the extent of thatch within the upper profile?


Understorey shrubs

Understorey shrubs


Our woodlands may have received management of some description but does that make them better? Past coppice and management would create diverse stands of young to old growth wood, of understorey to veteran trees. If we manage to create a dominance of oak because we are told it is native supporting high wildlife value then what will we do when oak succumbs to disease. We need diversity not just in the types of trees or the dense or more open woodland stands, but also in terms of the management employed. Removing saplings, ivy or bramble is a process of tidying rather than effective management.

We are all to some extent conditioned to be tidy. Today when we talk of management it is often to improve tidiness rather than to secure ecological functioning and it’s the same with the off line grasslands – the rough.

We now look to mimic past management with cutting, scarification and litter collection to improve or develop conditions for pollinators. This although positive for pollinators may prove detrimental to birds such as owls and kestrel that are dependent upon small rodents that previously found security in the thick sward.

Other species too may be adversely impacted by our conditioning to tidy, even if under the guise of improving pollinator habitat. We cut our grasslands in spring and in summer to thin the sward but traditional meadow management would have involved just one cut and harvest during late summer.

We need to understand the consequences of our actions and the effects that they can have.



Skylark were common throughout the countryside. They have declined by over 80% in 30 years



Common cuckoo

Bird books of the 1960s state that “no walk in the countryside in spring would be complete without the sound of the cuckoo. Today most of us will not have that privilege.


When you listen to advice think about where ‘their’ baseline is and what that knowledge is based upon. Going forward trying to manage traditionally may not be enough to sustain particular species or indeed improve the fragmented state of the habitats.

Traditional practices must evolve to remain cost effective and practical. Remember that the baselines we work to are arbitrary, the land is a product of our doing and not of natural processes.

We need to retain diversity but with linkage to prevent genetic isolation, our wildlife requires motorways to travel just as we do and they cannot be severed by different land uses.

With this in mind look at the wider landscape outside of the golf course. Communicate with the land managers, the stakeholders and the communities to develop a modern landscape solution to management and a more functional environment.


I’m aiming to publish a new ‘Taylor Talks’ column every month, so please get in touch via info@strigroup.com or my Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin accounts to add your suggestions on what you want me to discuss in the future.

I’m also happy to answer any questions on ecological and environmental sports surface management. Don’t be shy, I don’t bite…these aren’t even my real teeth!