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Rowan’s Rambles – Can golf get a ‘birdy’?

Ecology, Environments, Features, News / 5th February 2019

In the first of a new segment for 2019, STRI ecological consultant, Rowan Rumball, discusses how golf is uniquely positioned to be one under par when it comes to conservation and biodiversity.

Hummingbird perched on tree branch

Dwindling habitat

“Plenty more fish in the sea” is a common phrase to hear, often in relation to a heartbroken teenager, but recently I have come to relate it more and more to our dwindling habitat.

It comes from a time when there was a perception that there will always be another fish to take the place of the one removed. We now of course know how incorrect that is, so why do we believe “always be habitat and species a plenty”?

Golf is in a unique position in the world of sport. It has the capability of creating fantastic change in the environment by being not only sustainable but also actively positive for biodiversity.

Aerial photo of a golf course with long shadows pouring off tall pine trees

Good for the game?

I am sure that many golf club members will be saying at this point, “golf courses can be great for the environment so long as it does not affect my game!”

In response I would say that it is the other way around, many courses are great for the game, in part at least, because they are great for the environment.

Golf courses have a long and venerable history with some being around for well over a hundred years. When Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) were introduced in the 1949 over 100 golf courses were chosen to be designated.

Aberdovey golf course is right on top of a SSSI and has a great blend of nature and golf

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)

Courses like Aberdovey, Gog Magog and St Andrews all have SSSIs associated with them because they have amazing nature, which helps them become some of the top rated courses in the world.

In return the nature on course gets some much needed funding and management from the club. Forty per cent of SSSIs in the UK are considered in “favourable” condition.

When looking at SSSIs on golf courses that number jumps to 60% which is well above the UK’s Biodiversity 2020 target of 50%. This is one of those rare times in both sport and conservation that the two goals come together.

6th hole of Royal Troon Golfclub, Troon, United Kingdom

Good for the greenkeeping team?

“But taking care of nature means the staff will not be taking care of my greens!” The next shout will be. It may not be clear why but in fact the opposite is true.

When areas of rough are taken care of appropriately, minimising nutrient inputs and so on, they require significantly less time to manage. This is due to a reduction in grass growth primarily, but also a greater resistance to disease and a larger proportion of wild flowers for our suffering bees.

This leaves green staff with much more time to take care of the areas that matter for the game, fairways, tees and greens. When we come to accept the beauty of the unruly nature alongside our fairways, we will see an improvement in the quality of the fairways themselves.

Notts golf club has one of my favourite holes to play

Benefit to the players?

Helping nature on the course will not only be good for the nature and greenkeeping staff but also for the players themselves. Many studies have shown a subliminal feeling of well-being brought on by around nature.

Let’s say for example that I am having a bad day and playing a very bad round. When I get back to the club, I am much more likely to talk about the beautiful woodpecker I saw than how I played!

A majority of golf courses are already providing a valuable resource for many stressed birds, bats, bees and more, showing that us and nature can live side by side.

People playing golf on the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course in Richmond, England.

Good all-rounder

There is, however, potential with only a minor change in our thinking to not only improve the play of golf courses but also double the area available to nature.

We don’t just want to see golf get a par for nature, we want to see it get a birdy… at least.


If you have any comments or questions about this article, contact Rowan on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.