Golf and Birds

Most people would look at this title and suspect that the only connection is that golfers use the terms birdie, eagle and albatross as part of their way of scoring but did they know that the habitats on golf courses put together in Britain cover a larger area than all the RSPB reserves! Although the word ‘birdie’ originated from American slang for a long hit/good shot the other two were given in the 1920/30’s as the rarity of the bird which is quite fitting for the poor old Albatross today!

My connection with golf comes from my 3 sons all who play golf. Not only did they play on a course with lots of habitat but they would come home and tell me all the wonderful things they had seen while playing like Peregrines, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Crossbills to Herons and mammals like Polecat to Roe Deer. They enjoyed golf so much that one went on to be a golf professional, one studied golf management for his degree and the 3rd went on to work with wildlife after working on another local course!

Golf is going through an interesting time. The hay day was in the 1980s and 1990s with 100s of new courses being built around Britain, but now the numbers of people playing golf is falling. A survey by KPMG, an audit firm in 2012 reported that golf clubs in the UK and Ireland lost 42,700 members in 2011 – though that still left 1,326,700 members plus many that never join a club and play only occasionally.

In Cumbria alone, numbers playing golf have fallen from 13500 to 9500 in a 4 year period! So what will happen to these habitats! Around Britain there are140,000 hectares of rough and out-of-bounds areas on golf courses which could/are managed for wildlife. Out of this, in England alone 100 courses have part/all their area in SSSIs. So much so that up to 50 courses are having a financial worry so courses will be lost.

My local golf course at Brampton in Cumbria is not an SSSI but in the 1990s I started a nest box scheme on it and had 8 pairs of Pied Flycatchers and 2 pairs of Redstarts. Even Wood Warbler nested in a beech wood on the course. There were plenty of Willow Warblers nesting as well as Long tailed Tit, Bullfinch and Tree Creeper. Tawny owls nested in a hollow tree while many species were recorded in neighbouring habitats.

Next door is a country park which is on high level stewardship. The golf course receives no subsidy even though their members pay a large fee for the privilege while the public get the park via their council tax. Some golf courses do receive stewardship if they are part of an SSSI or next to one but it does seem unfair in this case, if habitats are better on the golf course than the country park. The amount of dead wood on this golf course is an example of good habitat with the ever increasing demand for wood for wood burning stoves destroying many woods.

Another local example is the Eden golf club near Carlisle built out of the ‘grain mountain’ period when fields were taken out of production. At one time in the 1980s I counted 240 Whooper Swans and 17 Berwick Swans on these fields before being turned into a golf course. Of course these birds moved to new areas in North Cumbria as this type of grain field was common on the Solway plains. Today the course is home to a wide variety of birds especially woodland species as many parts of the course were planted up and water features added. Sadly the biggest water feature being the River Eden which flooded the course [and Carlisle] in 2005 and again in 2015!

The major habitat that golf courses go for are sand dunes. One of the best reasons for bird life is low maintenance and reduction in chemicals. These are called ‘links’ courses and are the location for the major golf competition in the UK called ‘the Open’. The courses that host the competition actually produce a booklet for the spectators to know about what wildlife to see on the course and beware of damage. The 2013 competition was at Muirfield in July up on the Firth of Forth and I always remember the last time it was here in 2002 that the commentator, Peter Alliss showing the viewers on the screen a Sparrowhawk’s nest. No it wasn’t Spring watch but someone taking an interest in wildlife while golfers from all around the world battled it out for the ‘claret jug’.

The Turnberry Open booklet even went as far out as Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde claiming Gannets, Puffins and Manx Shearwater from their point just off the playing area. This point even picks up the spring Skua passage now so that’s a new species for them next time the open comes there! Royal Birkdale in Lancashire is another SSSI more noted for its Natterjack Toads and Sand Lizards not to mention Red Squirrels.

The Royal St George's Golf Course in Kent, the only links to be used in the south of England has the rare Lizard Orchid along with other botanical rarities like Bedstraw Broomrape, Marsh Helleborine and Sand Catchfly. The famous links at St Andrews boast about their Grey Partridge and Barn owl while I saw 3 Surf Scoters in a flock of Velvets off the beach right there!

A fairly new links course opened in 2009 at Machrihanish Dunes near Campbeltown, Argyll is the first to be granted permission to be built on a full SSSI. The reason for the decision was that only 5 acres of the course were to be worked on out of the 275 acres of stable dunes. Artificial nest sites for Wheatear were to be added into the dunes and the number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were thought to increase due to the management which included sheep and rabbits to graze the course. Short eared and Barn Owls regularly hunted the course while Raven and Peregrine were seen around the area.

This is quite different to the new links course near Aberdeen. The Trump International Golf Links was opposed by Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB for the amount of work to be carried out on the ‘back 9’. Here the dune system would be stabilised to prevent sand drifting onto the course.

The RSPB said ‘Our concern focuses on the area of untamed, wild and natural sand dunes that would be irreparably damaged by “stabilisation” to provide the back nine of one of the two courses. This area is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – the “crown jewels of our natural heritage” – and, thus, legally protected, especially if alternatives are available. In addition, other parts of the area also support important biodiversity.’

Why this course caused such a battle by both parties is unclear as Trump National golf course in Los Angeles, California went out of its way to work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish & Game especially to protect the rare bird, the Californian Gnatcatcher. The RSPB had written to the Trump organisation to try and work with the development near Aberdeen and even brought in their own course designer to prevent damage to the SSSI but with no success.

The Scottish Government granted permission over ruling the Aberdeen city Council that had rejected the planning application. [They may have known he was going for President of the USA in the future!] The course opened in April this year after a severe storm in January had damaged parts of the back 9. The dune system further north from here was breached in the same storm in two places at Rattray Head allowing sea water onto the fresh water marsh. SNH started survey work in 2013 on the golf course to assess the possible damage to the SSSI.

The total acreage which Donald Trump owns here is 1250 acres. With another 18 hole course to be built it leaves a large area where wildlife can be managed for. At £200 to play the new 18 hole course Americans are to fly in to Aberdeen’s own airport at Dyce. Trump went on to buy the Turnberry Golf course in Aryshire in 2014. In Northern Ireland a £100 million course was blown ‘off course’ next to the Giant’s Causeway when the developer died and the new owner had other plans. Ireland already had 340 18-hole courses!

These golf course habitats around Britain do contain some of our rarest birds with 27 listed on red or amber. Heathland in the south can have Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark all by the 5th Tee! Cornwall have the Choughs and Cirl Bunting which use some of the courses down there but a few years ago a breeding pair of Chough choose a golf course in Galloway to be the only pair in SW Scotland. Other vulnerable birds mentioned around golf courses include Turtle Dove, Lesser spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch, and even Black Grouse.

Regardless of habitat some golf courses actually end up with rare migratory birds invading their space. Such was the scene at Kington Golf club in Hereford in 2012. This club claims the highest course in England and its high hill and short turf was may be the reason this rare bird decided to use their course. Over 2000 birders descended onto the 8th green to see a Cream coloured Courser which stayed for 5 days.

This was the time of the club’s monthly senior’s competition and on the 6th green, players had to ‘drive’ over a campervan parked on the fairway by a birder! One senior drove onto the 8th only 30 feet from the hole and all the assembled birders clapped the shot. The golf professional at the course claimed it was like the ‘open’ coming to Hereford! [ More like ‘Happy Gilmore’ the comedy golf film!] A national newspaper asked a birder ‘how rare was the bird’. He replied ‘as rare as wind coming out of a rocking horse!’ Some of the other rare migrants found on courses have include Desert Wheatear, Buff breasted Sandpiper, Hoopoe, Dotterel, Ivory Gull and Stone Curlew in the north.

The challenge will come in the future when some of these courses will actually become redundant. What will happen to these habitats if a builder looks at development for a housing estate! With land at £10,000 an acre for farmland rural courses will be bought up and straight onto ‘single farm payment’ and ‘high level stewardship’. Money that would/could have kept most courses going! Will the RSPB or Wildlife Trusts step into make urban reserves where possible or will it be a free for all leaving the ‘birdie’ out in the cold!

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