Golf clubs are feeling the impact of the economic crisis, a development that may have serious implications for wildlife management.
According to the English Golf Union, which represents 1,900 clubs, a number of clubs are in difficulty. “We haven’t had any club actually going into administration but we have had calls for help,” said a spokeswoman. Membership of clubs is in decline, although the number of people playing golf is going up. “The business model is changing and people are considering how they spend their money,” she added.
The travails of golf clubs may seem irrelevant to the natural world, but in fact the two are often closely linked. The environmentally sustainable management of a golf course can increase habitat variety, enhance biodiversity, and protect delicate and rare habitats such as dune and heathland. A recent survey by English Nature found that, overall, only 57% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) were considered to be in favourable condition; the result for SSSIs that are part of a golf course is higher, with 66% managed to this level. English Nature is on record as saying that courses have a special wildlife designation because of their historical management as golf courses, not despite it.
Environmentalists divide golf courses into two broad categories: the coastal links courses (good for wildlife) and the inland greens (not so good).
Dr Tom Tew, chief scientist at Natural England, said that economic pressure on golf courses was not just down to falling membership, but also caused by the high price of pesticides and herbicides and water.
“There’s a modern stereotype of American’ style golf courses that are ecologically sterile, over-fertilised and over-watered and are plonked down in the middle of the countryside,” he said. “Conservationists will not be wringing their hands if such places fall by the wayside.
“They are not ecologically sustainable. It may look green and have a pond but the grass will be non-native, which is better for putting, and the pond will be full of algae – those costs outweigh any benefit to wildlife.”
According to Dr Tew, conservationists are seeking to shift the golfing industry from one end of the spectrum to the other. “By and large this is happening,” he said. “The industry understands the importance of the environment and clubs can no longer afford the high cost of pesticides and herbicides.”
Across England, there are more than 100 SSSIs found on golf courses, covering more than 6,000 hectares. Famous courses, such as Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, and Royal St Georges in Kent are internationally renowned for wildlife. These are the duneland ecosystems where golf started, and where you will find orchids, skylarks and classic duneland vegetation.
“Many of our seaside links course – so-called because they link the sea to the land – are the only remnants of costal habitat left,” said Mr Tew. “If they are not golf courses then they have been turned into caravan parks, grazing marsh or housing development.”
Meanwhile, the long-running debate over an American billionaire’s plans to build a links golf course in Aberdeenshire has taken another twist, with local homeowners on the estate refusing to sell up.
Donald Trump was last year granted permission for a £1bn development at Menie that would include two golf courses, 950 holiday homes and 500 houses. Mr Trump said the project would inject money into the region but the plans were heavily criticised by environmentalists. The Scottish government backed the plan after a public inquiry, against the advice of its own conservationists. Opponents are attempting to draw up a legal challenge to this decision.
Now two people, farmer Michael Forbes and neighbour David Milne, have said they will not sell to the tycoon and would oppose any compulsory purchase of their houses.