Noel Mackenzie: Too little ecology goes into golf course design

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 12, 2011 09:50

Noel Mackenzie: Too little ecology goes into golf course design

Leading agronomist Noel Mackenzie has said that too little topography and ecology goes into golf course design.

He said: “The non-playing ‘other’ surfaces include grass, heather, scrub, trees, water courses or lakes and other habitat types.

“The ‘other’ is not just the habitat or ecological character of the area in question.

“It is the land form, the topographical levels and perhaps other features such as hedgerows or stone walls, dykes, ditches and so on.

“As we have witnessed there has been a significant effort by some clubs to enhance these areas to create better environmental benefits for both the club itself but also the industry as a whole, which, rightly or wrongly, is often perceived as environmentally unfriendly.

“Ecological ‘through the greens management’ of the ‘other’ has been a significant focus within our industry – and perhaps there has been a little too much focus on this at times within our press at the expense of good greenkeeping practices.

“In new development situations where a brand new course is being created the land may need to be shaped and altered in some way. One of the key failings of new golf developments over the post-war period has been to miss the issue of how the course fits into its local environment. Much of the perceived public agitation toward golf developments seems to stem from visual intrusion of a golf course.

“The visual intrusion may be stark white sand bunkers in an area of rolling downland or a farming area. The public perceive such bunkers as blots on the landscape and visually detracting from the local aesthetic character of the area.

“The use of sand is potentially controversial in some situations and yet how many designers really stop to think if it is right for the area and its visual impact on the local environment before installing bunkers? There is an automatic process that seems to go on that sand must be used in the development of a new course, but this need not be the case.

“The same can be said of tree planting, use of gorse, removal of hedgerows and so on. Any developmental change has an impact. A good designer will seek to use the existing landscape features as much as possible to blend his or her course into the environment, thereby helping to reduce the impact of the course.

“The scourge of many golf courses in the last 35 years has been the careless use of the Leyllandii conifer. In certain situations their use is appropriate, but only when protection is required from wayward shots.

“Nonetheless there are hundreds of examples of golf courses still suffering the blight of ‘legoland’ conifer trees when the opportunity exists for better landscaped and more suitable and ecologically beneficial alternatives to be put in their place. Such alternatives may be native trees suitable to the soil type; or perhaps scrub to encourage birds; or maybe a better use of the area is for the ground to be put over to grassland; or perhaps a pond may be the best alternative.

“There are no hard and fast rules, but those architects designing landscapes around golf courses should engage with ecologists and botanists to discuss the potentials of the site and how to optimise its wildlife.

“They should also have a full appreciation of, or contacts with a good landscape architect regarding, optimising the aesthetic blending of the course with the local environment.

“However, there is a conundrum! How does a golf developer seek out its designer? There are probably two main drivers in the purchasing process of expertise.

“Bigger, business-led developments whose aim is to host major championship events are often driven by big name designers or top golfers fronting a design team. In such a situation the opportunities to optimise the ‘other’ is limited by the drive to create the next Augusta or Wentworth.

“The business drive to push design to new limits and create a super-manicured course with a place for everything and everything in its place is fantastically strong. Marketing and hype that surrounds many of these developments to attract the huge funding required mean that the landscaping issues of the ‘other’ seldom come to the fore, unless demanded by planning consent.

“Smaller business developments may select designers on price or a blend of price and reputation / track record.

“Where price is driving the development of the course the ‘other’ will be a low priority. In fact, when price so often limits the quality of the playing surface it is hardly surprising that the ‘other’ seldom gets much of a look in.

“Landscaping carefully demands time, which increases costs, which may make one designer look more expensive when a club is considering quotes in a tendering process.

“Whether creating a new course or enhancing an existing course, overlooking the ‘other’ is often a significant and costly oversight.

“How these non-playing areas are landscaped has major implications for the character of the course and the cost of managing the site.

“Pre-planning whether an area might possess the right conditions for good wild flora or gorse would make for a better finish but also enhance the chances of blending a new course into its environment.

“For example, when a wildlife-enhanced area is desired, the normal first instinct is for someone to think, ‘let’s put in a pond’. This may be the right approach, but not if the area is at the top of a chalk hill.

“The pond there would require an artificial liner that can get damaged while the area has better potential and is easier to maintain as grassland.

“This may seem an obvious situation but it has happened that a course has done just this (and got a grant to do it from a council) only to find that it was hard to maintain, the liner was damaged by golfer spikes during ball retrieval (despite being well out of play!) and, ultimately, the club decided to remove the pond (but had to pay back £5,000 for the privilege).

“Another good example is a course which was formerly an apple orchard. The owners had a particular desire to create a golf course and have very successfully retained many apple trees.

“However, in other parts of the course different tree planting has taken place using a good mix of native species and paid for to some degree by grants. So far so good you might think!

“Unfortunately, the owners developed a blind eye to the trees getting bigger and bigger.

“After several years of warning from myself and growing frustration from the course manager (who was not even allowed to trim the low branches to get mowers around the base of the trees) things were getting out of hand. Then members started to complain about losing balls, loss of sight lines to the greens and so on.

“Only then, when the threat of losing members started to arise did it suddenly dawn on the owners that the trees must be thinned out.

“By this time though many trees had become spindly through competition so after thinning, the trees took another two years to recover and present a better character to the course.

“So for all ‘other’ non-playing areas planning is essential – whether you are a new development or considering the ‘rejuvenation’ of an existing area on an established course.

“The post-landscaping management of the area should be of paramount concern and so a management plan should be considered for the time and equipment that may be needed to maintain the area in the desired condition before moving ahead with the project. If you like, each landscaping adjustment should have a feasibility study as to its sustainability.

“Each landscape type or ecological habitat will require its own management plan if it is to remain acceptable in both appearance and character to the course.

“For example, grassland (depending on the type) is likely to require some cutting and or harvesting of hay on a programmed basis if wild flora is to be encouraged. However, some grassland may not need this kind of approach, for example, Marram grass in dune situations or even the impoverished, often fescue dominated, pasture that develops behind the dunes themselves.

“The management plan should identify:

• The habitat type that is desired and whether it is realistic;

• The type and frequency of maintenance that is required;

• Whether the maintenance of the area clashes with the timing of works on the primary business area – the playing surface of the golf course;

• The costs of maintaining the area;

• Any implications that could arise from creating and managing the area in both the short or longer term;

• Whether monitoring for wildlife types or numbers is justified, for example newts, bats, bird numbers and so on.

“Management of the ‘other’ is essential. In the design phase the landscape should be taken into account both within and outside of the course development boundaries. Consultation with planning officers is certainly required but further consultation with ecologists, botanists and good landscape architects would enhance any development. The creation of the ‘other’ should be on the basis that it is suitable in terms of:

• Landscape form;

• Topography;

• Retention (where possible) of existing features or replication of a feature as mitigation for the development;

• Habitat creation, which should be suitable for the area and landscape;

• The area, which should be maintainable;

• The management plan, which should assess the suitability and sustainability with an estimation of costs and resources.

“Landscaping work is so often seen as the poor relation when designing a course and particularly little thought is given to the habitats created thereafter.

“However, just a little bit of extra effort and thought can go a long way to enhance a development and reduce the costs of its maintenance when the diggers and earthmovers have gone.

“Even existing courses seeking to enhance their current environment might do well to plan more carefully and consult with experts when developing areas or changing the landscape.”

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 12, 2011 09:50
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