Dr Marie Athorn is the face of a partnership between the RSPB and The R&A. Prior to joining the RSPB in 2020 she was an ecological consultant providing advice around protected species and has a PhD, where she studied the conservation value of reedbeds that treat wastewater. Marie has played golf since she was a young girl and the partnership role perfectly twins her hobby and career to promote how golf courses, well managed for nature, can contribute to conservation.
For many of you that visit this website you will have already understood the notion that golf courses and nature can go together. Stephen’s extensive records of all sorts of different species using John O’Gaunt golf course speak for themselves. But what can be done to raise awareness of the contribution golf could make to conservation and what can more golf courses do to help?
RSPB and The R&A partner up to help nature
How about conservation organisations working together with the golf industry? That sounds like a good start! And that’s where I come in. I’m Marie Athorn, I am the face of a partnership between the RSPB and The R&A (The Royal and Ancient, one of the governing bodies of golf). This partnership started in 2020 and was formed to provide advice on habitat creation and management, as well as nature friendly practices, to golf clubs across the UK. As well as raise awareness of of the good golf can do for nature. Other conservation organisations are also working with golf courses across the UK. My presentation at BIGGA’s Continue to Learn event in January 2021 highlighted the work already being done across the conservation sector with golf. If you are a BIGGA member you can watch it here.
Landscape scale opportunities
With over 3,000 golf courses in the UK, contributing to approximately 126,000 ha of greenspace, golf courses are well placed to help provide for species of conservation concern and provide connectivity between existing priority habitats. This means that the contribution golf courses can make to nature conservation is not just on a local scale on their own site, they have the potential to contribute on a landscape scale. And not just as a refuge for rare and declining species but as stepping-stones across an increasingly fragmented landscape. Although most conservation organisations across the UK own and manage nature reserves, all acknowledge that nature will require a wider, connected network to survive and thrive. This means working with other landowners and land managers to create land well managed for nature is essential to nature’s recovery.
And there are already so many great examples of golf courses supporting nature conservation. The Golf Environment Awards highlight such fine examples.
Easy wins for you and wildlife
Helping nature doesn’t mean turning your green into a wildflower meadow. But often a place golf courses start to try and help nature is by creating wildflower areas, especially with public focus on helping pollinators. One thing to bear in mind is these need not mean planting species or sowing seeds. You may already have an amazing seed bank just below the surface waiting to flourish! And we wouldn’t want you to cover this up by sowing an inappropriate seed mix. So, an easy place to start is alter the management of areas of long rough or carry areas to allow native wildflowers to flourish. A cut and collect method in early autumn can be hugely beneficial. This can save money and time compared to current management too. Native wildflowers often flourish in nutrient poor soils with little competition from coarse grasses and so management to benefit native wildflowers produces a thin wispy sward, often the same kind of thing golfers want. Just a quick point here, if you do plan to sow wildflower seeds anywhere do make sure to get some expert advice and only sow native, locally sourced seed suitable to the soil your golf course sits on.
Want some more advice on how to help pollinators… Take a look at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust Managing golf courses for bumblebees factsheet, produced with the partnership, to see which areas of your golf course could be managed with bumblebees (and other pollinators) in mind. Even if you don’t want to start with wildflower areas, golf clubs can always start with small steps like planting some pollinator friendly species in their formal planted areas near the clubhouse? Something like winter-flowering heather provides a great early food source for pollinators. Or how about altering the management of your hedgerows to support pollinators and birds?
Other simple steps include providing artificial homes for nature, be that bird boxes, bat boxes or bug hotels. Careful consideration of their design and placement can make all the difference too. Instead of providing standard bird boxes for the likes of blue tits and great tits (although some of these can be helpful), can you provide open fronted boxes for spotted flycatchers, could you place swift boxes high up on the club house or maintenance facility? And what a joy for members, staff and visitors to watch swifts soaring overhead if they take up residency in those boxes!
Here to help
Sometimes knowing where to start to help nature can be a bit of a minefield. The partnership between the RSPB and The R&A is producing a series of factsheets, soon to be released, to give guidance on everything from how to make bird and bat boxes to hints and tips surrounding habitat management to benefit nature. Keep an eye on The R&A webpages for their release. But getting in touch with a conservation charity can help provide that bit of expertise that starts you in the right direction. If you want some support don’t hesitate to get in touch with me via Twitter or drop an email to email@example.com.
If you have done any work to support nature on your golf course, let me know! Tag me on Twitter @marieathorngolf.