How South Essex Golf Club’s course strategy attracts wildlife and reduces chemical usage

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:26

How South Essex Golf Club’s course strategy attracts wildlife and reduces chemical usage

There are many ways by which a golf course can differentiate itself. For some owners, the lure of being a signature design is of paramount importance and with increasing numbers of the world’s best golfers launching course design businesses, that fad seems certain to grow – especially in the developing world.

However, some would argue that the trend to use big names to endorse big projects is only underpinning many of the age-old criticisms that cling, limpet-like, to golf (most notably that it is elitist, expensive and environmentally unsound).

Thankfully, there are clubs that are determined to challenge those perceptions and prove beyond doubt that golf can contribute enormous social and environmental value to society – and South Essex Golf Centre, part of the Crown Golf group, is one such venue.

Situated just outside Brentwood, Essex, and just five minutes from junction 29 of the M25, South Essex GC provides the ideal location for a relaxing game of golf in tranquil surroundings – with the defined aim of creating an enjoyable environment for the whole family.

But the club’s attitude towards the environment extends way beyond simply creating the right conditions and atmosphere.

South Essex GC takes its social responsibility very seriously and is at the forefront of demonstrating how to manage a golf course in a more natural and sustainable manner within its existing environment. Even beekeeping plays a role (but more of that later!)

South Essex GC was designed by Reg Plumridge in 1994 and presents 27 holes of golf on three nine-hole loops – the Hawk, Heron and Vixen courses – with superb panoramic views over the Thames Valley and into Kent.

Spaciousness and nature have deliberately been taken into account and blended into the established gently-rolling landscape, so varying the mix of courses can give some genuinely interesting combinations.

But while the quality of the experience on offer has been recognised by golfers now for more than a decade, it is a forward-thinking view of golf course sustainability that is earning the venue and its owners a more widespread reputation.

Environmental management plays a major role in the day-to-day running of South Essex GC, with the key objectives of enhancing and improving the existing courses without lowering the playing quality, and reducing the use of chemicals, fertiliser and water on the 200-acre site.

Course manager Peter Dawson first put together his ‘South Essex Environmental Development Strategy’ (SEEDS) plan in 2003 and it was recognised by BIGGA in 2005 when the club was rewarded with the ‘Best Newcomer’ award in its Environmental Awards.

With ‘Highly Commended’ recognition in both 2006 and 2007, it is clear South Essex GC has a long-term strategy to reduce its carbon footprint and Crown Golf works closely with The R&A to make fertiliser, water and chemical use facts and figures available to aid the drive to encourage sustainable golf course management.

Under the careful stewardship of Peter and his team, charcoal making, wildflower planting and beekeeping – not activities traditionally prevalent on most golf courses – form a significant part of the sustainability strategy here.

And while the environment benefits ecologically from all the activity, the visual aspect of the course is enhanced for the golfer through the use of wildflower sowing and planting, coppicing and pond construction and renovation.

This is most evident on the Hawk course, where the fifth, sixth and eighth holes now play home to attractive ponds which encourage wildlife diversity by providing a habitat for dragonfly, moorhens and other creatures – while attractive pond edge plants like dogwood add to the visual appearance.

The establishment of wildflower areas at South Essex is also playing a dual role, giving golfers an attractive backdrop to their shotmaking while encouraging insect-life to thrive. The sixth hole on the Hawk course was a pilot for a wildflower area two years ago, with three other areas introduced at the venue through 2007.

One of the cornerstones of Peter Dawson’s SEEDS initiative is grassland management. While greens, tee boxes and first-cut rough naturally need more intensive cutting, deeper grassland rough is only trimmed once or twice a year so it maintains its pure grassland appearance and encourages finer grasses to grow.

Without any trimming it would revert to its natural scrub and woodland appearance and impact the natural environment.

Meanwhile grass clippings (which are toxic but, conversely, high in nutrients) are boxed off in collection areas, ready to be taken to composting bays, and the compost is then used throughout the site.

Great attention has also been given to the courses’ boundary hedges – some of which are 400 years old – where gaps are filled in with tree planting to create wildlife corridors. And coppicing in the surrounding woodland encourages vigorous regrowth and a sustainable supply of timber for future generations.

As you’d expect at this forward thinking golf club, the trees and shrubs removed through the coppicing are re-used too. Willow has been recycled and used extensively to renovate streams on the course while other wood is put in special burners to create charcoal (which is then used at club barbecues) while larger logs have helped to create logwood piles by ponds – safe havens for insects, small mammals and reptiles.

The strong theme of creating habitats for wildlife has seen the construction of a hibernacula, by burying a network of small offcuts from drainage pipes under a mound of earth, which provides a welcome retreat for all sorts of wildlife – including snakes.

And less obvious, but nonetheless important, recycling can be seen in the use of course accessories fashioned from wood and an old water-bowser made into an attractive planter.

Said Peter Dawson: “I believe it is hugely important for golf courses to find ways of reducing the impact they have on the environment. Reducing the inputs of fertiliser and chemicals is clearly better for the environment – and in our case it saves the company money too, which cannot be ignored.

“For example, adopting sustainable course management practices across the board has enabled us to halve the amount of nitrogen we use. Our aim is to get all our figures as low as we can while maintaining the quality of the playing turf on the course.”

Of course, it is one thing to adopt environmental practices and another to educate golfers on the need for their adoption, so communication with golfers and the public on the essential environmental work that has taken place at South Essex GC is also important.

An information leaflet is available on the public right of way, which describes the various aspects of the club’s ongoing projects, while information discs on recycled tree stumps make attractive signs for the golfers themselves and reveal where specific work has taken place.

So, what of the bees? It will come of no surprise to hear that the £500 reward that came with South Essex’s BIGGA ‘Best Newcomer’ award was reinvested back into the club – but interestingly, Peter and a colleague decided to use the money on a 10-week beekeeping course.

And having learned the beekeeping essentials, they put two hives and colonies of bees alongside the eighth hole on the Heron course with the aim of encouraging wildflower pollination – and even produced some honey which was sold to members.

Said Peter: “This is definitely something we enjoyed. It was fun selling honey to members, but it is the positive impact on the environment that bees have which is something that I am keen to continue.”

With sustainability, climate change and environmental education now featuring prominently in schools, a new generation of golfers will grow up looking for courses which understand how they fit in to the natural environment. South Essex GC certainly appreciates this.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:26
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