I have always been interested in birdwatching from an early age so, after I left school, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) seemed like a most suitable choice for somewhere to work. I joined on a YTS scheme for a year (1989-1990), but left to try somewhere different and thought I would try John O'Gaunt Golf Club, just five minutes up the road. I never thought, back then, that It would be such an enjoyable place to work, and be such an amazing place for wildlife.
With twenty-five years experience of being a greenkeeper, I have come to realise just what a special place a golf course can be. It's not a bit of nature on a golf course, but a bit of golf on a nature reserve.
The question is how do you relay this to the members?
Golfers are seen every day walking and carrying their clubs, hitting a small white ball around the course, but they don't realise what they are missing. Looking after a golf course involves looking after a wide range of habitats which, in turn, means a wide range of wildlife.
But where do you start?
A good idea to start with is to put some bird feeders up, possibly outside the clubhouse or somewhere where golfers can see them easily. Bird feeders and food can be purchased from a wide variety of shops, such as your local garden centre, country store or RSPB shop, plus numerous online retailers. You don't have to spend a fortune and, once in place, the members can get to see a wide variety of birds without even having to leave the clubhouse.
Once members begin to see the birds regularly, you will find that you often get comments about what they have seen or even questions on identification. An interest is sparked about what else they can see out on the rest of the course and, at some clubs such as Elsham in north Lincolnshire, members are quite happy to donate food/feeders.
There is a wide variety of food to attract lots of different birds. Birds that you can expect to see at the feeders are Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and, if you can get Niger seed, Goldfinches.
Continuing with birds, an excellent way of getting members involved and able to see birds at close quarters is to set up public bird ringing demonstrations. There are numerous local bird ringing groups which can be found online, or you could contact the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) or the RSPB. Members can put questions to experts and find out lots more information about particular species.
Bird ringing demos can also turn up the unexpected. At a ringing demo in Nov 2013, the first bird caught was a male Blackcap, which was the first wintering record of this species at John O'Gaunt.
Nestboxes around the course can provide members with an opportunity to keep an eye out for nesting activity in the spring - without actually looking in the box. Adults will be very active, back and forth feeding young, and this gives golfers something to talk about. Over the years, I have noticed a lot more interest in the boxes from members and I often get asked how successful they have been.
It's not just birds on the course that members should be aware of; there's also lots of flora and fauna to look out for. Probably the best way of engaging with the members is to take them on a nature walk around the course, pointing out different species, habitats and what they can expect to see, which usually results in lots of questions and is always very informative for the members.
The walks I have done have mostly been in my own time, but it is not always me providing the information. I have been able to bring in local experts to lead bat walks, moth trapping evenings and fungi forays. Information on local bat, moth and fungi groups can be found on line. I have also brought in experts to talk at the club on various subjects, including owls and swifts. This is just another way of providing information for the members.
A project that John O'Gaunt are involved in, and indeed many other clubs around the country, is Syngenta's Operation Pollinator, a scheme designed to provide wildflower habitats to help bees and other pollinating insects. These areas are a big focal point for members and provide large areas of colour that are full of life in the summer. A project well worth getting involved in.
Signs are a great idea and can provide useful information to members. Highlighting the Operation Pollinator areas, for example, can get people asking questions about what the scheme entails and what the area hopes to achieve. You could also have information points around the course providing details on particular species to look for.
A noticeboard in the clubhouse can provide an area where you can promote nature walks and other events along with species ID posters. Provide an area where members can report their sightings and add other information.
The internet can also be a useful tool to get information across to members. Use the club's website, emails and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
I asked a few members at John O'Gaunt some questions:
What value do you think wildlife adds to the golf course?
"A golf course is part of the countryside and, as such, it will always have some flora and fauna around. The addition of flowering plants outside the normal playing area adds greatly to the beauty of the scene. The fauna, particularly birds with their song and appearance, and butterflies and dragonflies also increase the pleasure. An occasional sighting of a Muntjac always gives rise to excited comment. Squirrels, however, are a different matter."
Fergus Moynihan, JOG member
"Everybody's experience is enhanced by the sight and sounds of the wildlife witnessed on the course, whatever the weather. One never knows what is going to appear; a large dog fox walked calmly in front of our group whilst we were on the second tee a couple of years ago. It did not take any notice of us and just strolled away; magic!
The sight of buzzards and even owls about during a morning stay in your memory. Golf is a long game and, whilst walking between shots, it is often interesting to look around and see what is happening about you. In todays 'rush world' it is a privilege to be part of a natural, unspoilt environment where nature and wildlife flourish. Where golfers and wildlife exist side by side, everyone gains, especially at a club run with both in mind; far better than a sterile manicured setup.
Members can be educated to the pluses of a thriving wildlife culture and our club is a fine example, with enthusiastic staff and an expert, Steve Thompson, who keeps all informed on notice boards and e-mails and spends a lot of his spare time arranging events like the dusk badger watches and bird ringing, all of which are very popular.
So, if the right staff are available and the wildlife is present on the course, utilise these factors to everyone's benefit."
Mike Morris, JOG member
How much more enjoyment do you get from a round of golf whilst looking out for wildlife on your way round?
"I am amazed by the response of playing partners who are blindly following their ball around the course when I point out that such and such a bird is calling or flying overhead. They've often noticed nothing. For me, it makes the whole experience of playing a round of golf as good as a walk in the countryside. When the wildflowers were blooming by the walk up to the 7th tee, a number of players commented most favourably."
This is just a handful of members out of many hundreds but, once I have their interest, I know many more will follow.
A golf course really is a fantastic place for wildlife and, now you have read this, hopefully you will have ideas on how you can tell your members what's really out there amongst all the grass."