Attracting birds to heathland

Dr Keith Duff
By Dr Keith Duff November 13, 2011 17:12

Attracting birds to heathland

Heather creates some of the most visually striking and challenging golf courses in Britain, and also supports many species of birds and other animals. Indeed, some of our rarest birds, such as nightjar, Dartford warbler and woodlark, are found on golf courses in the heathland areas of southern England.

It is helpful to view heathland as two separate habitats – upland and lowland heathland – although the boundaries between them may be indistinct. They share broadly similar vegetation and some species of bird, but each also has its own distinctive species and is an important habitat in its own right. Lowland heathland is a very rare habitat globally, with the 90,000 hectares occurring in the UK comprising 20 per cent of the total world resource. What remains is just a fragment of its former extent, meaning that the specialist lowland heathland birds such as Dartford warbler, nightjar and woodlark now have very restricted distributions in the UK.  However, there is considerable potential to re-establish lowland heathland in Britain – where much of it has been replaced by pine woodland – and many golf clubs are playing a valuable part in maintaining this rare habitat.

Upland heathland remains much more extensive in Britain, but several of its bird species (such as hen harrier, merlin and whinchat) have declined significantly, so anything which golf clubs can do to maintain or enhance heathland on their land is of great benefit. Good habitat management will provide opportunities for re-colonisation by such species and will also support the wider range of heathland specialists in the table on this page.

Heathlands, while characterised by species of heather, tend to be mosaics of habitat that also include acid grassland, scrub and woodland.  Scattered patches of scrub and individual trees are important to some heathland birds, which use them for nesting, territory marking and feeding. It is therefore important to retain a proportion of these within heather areas on golf courses, while retaining a largely open character. Fairways, where sensitively managed, are also important for heathland birds, as they support many small insects on which birds feed.

Heathland is a fragile habitat, prone to invasion by more aggressive species of grasses, shrubs and trees which gain a competitive advantage where fertility increases through lack of management. In the past this was prevented by grazing with sheep and cattle, and by turf cutting, but these practices have largely died out, leading to significant changes to lowland heaths over the past 75 years. The biggest challenge for golf course managers is therefore to ensure that the fertility of the heathland is kept low, which will help in controlling the encroachment of scrub and woodland into areas of heather, a trend which has become very pronounced since World War Two. Consequently, many heathland courses have been invaded by vigorous stands of birch, pine and gorse.  Restoration to more open heathland is not technically difficult, but is often controversial among members and local residents. But the benefits of carrying through such a restoration programme are considerable, both for biodiversity and for the golfing environment, and are widely appreciated in the longer term.

Where heathland has been heavily invaded by scrub or woodland, clubs effectively have two choices – either to undertake extensive woodland clearance to re-create the open heathland environment, or to clear back areas along the edges of fairways to create heather roughs between the mown areas and woodland areas. The first provides good habitat for heathland birds and, if carefully planned, a refuge from disturbance. The latter can benefit heathland invertebrates and may be used by birds for foraging, but frequent disturbance means that nesting is unlikely to be successful.  However, it may be a useful first stage in progressively developing more open heathland.

It is always impressive to see how quickly heather can regenerate from the existing seedbank when shade is removed and the original soil is exposed.  When creating heather roughs from previously wooded areas, it is important to ensure that these areas are wide enough to be sustainable, with a minimum width of at least 10 metres; on southerly edges this may need to be wider, since shade compromises heather vigour.  Scalloping the woodland / scrub edge, rather than keeping a straight line, may help to provide sheltered and undisturbed areas for birds and other wildlife. This encourages those species which prefer woodland edges, by increasing the area of habitat available to them.

Any heather restoration project needs periodic management to maintain structural diversity in the heather, and prevent scrub encroachment. Without this, the benefits will be lost over the next 20 years. Maintaining heather roughs is likely to require a programme of cutting or mowing the heather on a rotational basis every three to eight years. This should prevent scrub and young trees from developing, and keep the heather at a young stage that is beneficial to wildlife and remains playable.  Although a low intensity grazing regime, using sheep or cattle run by a local grazier and controlled by electric fences, is ideal management for heathland, many clubs will find that a cutting or mowing programme is better suited to their situation, and can provide habitat that is still very valuable.

Colonisation by coarse, wide-bladed grasses such as meadow grass and Yorkshire fog can be a problem where deciduous trees have established, as the leaf litter enriches the soil and allows grasses to thrive. Such grasses can also be a problem in restored heather areas, and the only satisfactory solution may be to apply an appropriate selective herbicide, followed by some light scarification.

Gorse, bracken and broom are all natural heathland plants but, if left unmanaged, can spread widely and suppress heather growth. Both gorse and broom are highly valuable for wildlife, but if unmanaged will develop high levels of nitrogen in the soil, which itself encourages the establishment of other undesirable plant species. These include bracken, which has the potential to become dominant, and which has little wildlife value compared to the habitats it replaces. Course management plans should therefore include monitoring and, where necessary, measures to control the expansion of gorse, broom and bracken.

Heather is also highly susceptible to damage by trampling by golfers and vehicles, resulting in reductions in extent and habitat quality. This is especially problematic in areas around tees, and in the carry areas between tees and fairways.  The only effective solution is to establish designated pathways and to ensure that players understand the need to stay on them.

Best practice: Hankley Common Golf Club, Surrey

The heathland areas south-west of London contain many classic golf courses, with Hankley Common Golf Club being especially notable because of the major effort which the club has put into heathland restoration and management over the past 15 years. The course itself has multiple nature conservation designations, being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area for birds, and the club has developed a strong and effective working relationship with Natural England and with local conservation initiatives and groups. This has ensured that potential conflicts between golf and wildlife conservation have been minimised, and the club has received free technical advice and guidance on heathland management techniques.

Loss of grazing on the heaths since World War Two led to the rapid encroachment of birch and Scots pine into the open heather areas, completely changing the nature of the course; historic photographs in the clubhouse show that early in the 20th century there was hardly a tree in sight, whilst by 1980 it was difficult to see one fairway from the next in many places. The result was that the open heathland required by rare species such as woodlark, nightjar and Dartford warbler diminished significantly in area, as did numbers of these vulnerable species. But early in the 1990s the club decided to restore the open heathland character of the course, and embarked on a long-term plan to do this which is still going on. Specific actions taken have included:

• Early consultation with Natural England to discuss options and approaches to be used, and to seek advice on sources of financial and technical assistance. The club was able to link in with a major county-wide restoration programme for dry heathland, coordinated by Surrey County Council, which provided significant help and some funding. A long-term course management plan was developed and agreed by all partners. Once the work started, discussions and consultations continued on both a formal and informal basis, building a strong and effective working relationship;

• A major programme of consultation and engagement with club members, to build understanding and support. This involved evening and day meetings and course walks, open forums and newsletters, sometimes involving external experts. Once established, it was important to continue the process of communication, especially since management of the heathland is an ongoing exercise;

• Clear felling of between 60 and 70 hectares of self-sown Scots pine and birch over more than 10 years, along with targeted woodland thinning and early control of natural regeneration of birch and pine. Stumps were de-rooted, and organic litter stripped away, before heather seed and brash were spread over the cleared areas to accelerate the process of heather re-establishment. In doing this, the club recognised the importance of retaining some scrub patches, to maintain a mosaic of habitat patches which provide woodlark, nightjar and Dartford warbler with nesting sites and singing posts. This also benefited species such as whinchat and stonechat. Retention of some woodland patches ensured the health of populations of species such as greater and lesser spotted woodpecker, along with other woodland species;

• The open areas of heathland and acid grassland are now kept clear by a mix of mowing and flailing, and support strong populations of sand lizard and adder. Prior to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 the club also used cattle to graze these areas, but this has now ceased. Insect diversity, which benefits bird populations through acting as a food source, has been increased through the excavation of small ponds across the heathland which now support abundant dragonflies, damselflies and other groups;

• The huge expanses of heather at Hankley, and the need for extensive mowing, has allowed the club to harvest heather seed. Some of this is used on site for further heather restoration, but the club also sells significant volumes to other clubs, and to conservation managers, providing a useful source of revenue, which is recycled into course maintenance work. The seed is collected by forage harvester, and screened before use or sale.

Best practice: Enville Golf Club, Staffordshire

Enville is a heathland course in Staffordshire with 36 holes, dating from 1935. As with many other heathland areas, its character has changed over the years as birch and pine woodland has grown into the open areas of heather. For many years the club has sought to control and reverse this process, and has been especially successful in gaining grant aid from government agencies to help them do this. It was the first golf club to receive funding under the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme administered by Natural England and has a 10-year agreement which pays it approximately £6,500 a year to carry out heathland, woodland management and restoration works. There are potential opportunities for other golf clubs to follow this lead and informal approaches to the local office of Natural England will help you find out whether such avenues may be open for your club. It might help if you mentioned that such agreements had already been made for golf courses (such as Enville). The following points are important when considering the potential of this approach:

• HLS is primarily a scheme aimed at supporting farmers, but is actually open to any landowner who is able to show a strong commitment to carrying out ecological management on their land, and golf courses within, adjacent or close to SSSIs may like to consider the possibilities. Details of the scheme can be found on the Natural England website;

• The Enville initiative was led by course manager, Jonathan Wood, who wrote a detailed article in Turfgrass Management on how involvement with the scheme has benefited the club. The golf courses lie adjacent to a heathland SSSI, and form a buffer between the SSSI and agricultural areas; the justification for the scheme is that the health of the adjacent SSSI will be enhanced by improving the ecological quality of similar habitats on the golf course;

• HLS is a competitive scheme, and requires that a detailed ‘Farm Environmental Plan’ is drawn up, which identifies priority features and habitats on the land, and sets out specific management actions which will secure their long-term management and improvement. Whilst the phrase ‘Farm Environmental Plan’ sounds as if only farms can apply, this is not the case, so do not be put off by this term. Preparation of this plan took Enville about a month to complete, but it was able to draw on professional ecological advice from the local Farming & Wildlife Group (FWAG) advisor. He helped the club draw up detailed plans of the golf course showing the location of various habitats and identifying what management actions were to be taken, and where. Working closely on this with the course manager ensured that the plan was able to take account of golfing and ecological considerations. The cost of ecological advisors can be claimed back in part from the scheme once your plan has been accepted;

• The formal agreement with Natural England spells out what work the club needs to do, what areas need to be worked on, and how success will be measured. Funds arrive via an annual payment plan, which allows the golf club to plan the work so that it fits with the normal golf course management tasks. The annual payment of approximately £6,500 relates to an area of some 32 hectares;

• Funding is also available through the agreement for agreed capital work items, and special items needed to carry out the tasks are defined in the agreement. A new flail collector for preparation of new heathland areas, and for ongoing management of existing areas, was purchased in this way, for example;

• The course manager, chair of green and other committee members put considerable effort into communicating with club and committee members about why this work was necessary, and built a strong constituency of support within the club. It is accepted by members, committee members and visitors that the ecological improvement works have enhanced the experience of playing golf at Enville, rather than detracting from golf objectives;

• The heathland management work being done through the HLS scheme is likely to lead to recolonisation by species such as woodlark and nightjar. Scrub areas are being established both in the heathland and woodland areas, and will increase populations of songbirds. Nestboxes are being erected in areas of mature woodland to attract tree sparrow, which has declined massively in the area, and which feeds over open heathland areas. Both greater and lesser spotted woodpecker occur in the club’s woodlands and will also benefit from the HLS works;

• Heather seed is harvested and used to regenerate weaker areas of heather across the course; excess seed is given away to other Natural England, English Heritage or golf course sites if they are in need of heather seed of local provenance.

• To help them determine the most appropriate management techniques for use on heather at Enville, the club has set up a heather trial area, where different approaches are tested. This has shown that turf stripping from areas of fescue-dominated rough (where dormant heather seed has been identified in the humus layer beneath the turf) is a very effective way of allowing the heather seed to germinate and develop into a good stand of heather over a two-to-three year period. The fescue turf is used in bunker renovations to give a natural look to the bunker.

Best practice: Walton Heath Golf Club, Surrey

The two courses at Walton Heath have a firm place in the history of English golf, being designed by Herbert Fowler, and having James Braid as the club professional for 46 years. The Ryder Cup was played on the Old Course in 1981, and numerous prestigious amateur and professional competitions still take place there today. As with all the Surrey heaths, Walton Heath has suffered significantly from invasion by scrub and trees over the past 60 years, but the golf club has carried out a major programme of heathland restoration over the past 10 years, to good effect. Nine hectares of pure heath has been restored in this period, and the area of woodland has been reduced by 13 hectares. The effect of this work on populations of vulnerable heathland bird species has been impressive.

• Stonechat, meadow pipit, skylark, linnet and yellowhammer populations have increased significantly, and woodlark have recolonised the area. The scrub and woodland areas which remain are now much better managed, and support populations of green woodpecker, greater spotted woodpecker, sparrowhawk and hobby; Scots pine have been retained especially to support hobby.  Crossbills are regular winter visitors, and there are signs that Dartford warblers are returning;

• Extensive consultations and discussions were held with a wide range of local environmental and residents’ organisations, to ensure that they understood what was being proposed, and why, and to reduce the likelihood of opposition.  This included Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Surrey Heathland Project.  As a result of this, the local authority agreed to modify the Tree Preservation Orders which applied to much of the area, to allow tree felling for the purpose of heathland re-creation. Through this, 2.4 hectares of poor woodland cover were transformed into seven hectares of restored heathland, in which rapid regeneration of heathland plants and shrubs took place. The trees removed were mainly secondary woodland, predominantly birch. Ancient yews, specimen oaks, established Scots pine and a patchwork of hawthorn were retained;

• Acid grassland areas were scarified and turf was stripped to expose heather seed and encourage its germination. A heather nursery has been established, to provide plants which will help with restocking. A 10-year plan for heathland restoration and ongoing management has been produced and is being implemented. To deliver this, a fleet of modern equipment has been acquired to replicate the past effects of grazing, harvesting and cutting which would have taken place whilst the heathland was supporting an ancient subsistence regime. The machines include a customised tractor and mounted rotary mower that both cuts and gathers material from the heathland.

Habitat management for birds on heathland areas

Active management is needed if heather areas are to be kept in good condition, but the work needed fits easily into the work programmes of the greenkeeping team, and is therefore not expensive.  Several key actions are recommended:

1. Draw up and implement a heathland management plan which includes:

• a three-to-eight year rotational mowing plan for heather compartments, removing brashings as far as possible, using a box collector or forage harvester (this is essential to avoid fertility building up and to suppress heather regrowth). Cut between September and early December when the heather has seeded – brashings can then be used to reseed other areas, or be sold;

• identifying and retaining individual trees (at less than 10 per hectare) and small patches of scrub within heather areas (no more than 10 per cent of the area), for nesting, territory marking and perching by birds;

• an on-going programme of control of self-sown birch and pine (and other locally invasive trees), and control of gorse and broom, to prevent scrubbing up of heather areas. You can retain some trees at a density of 10 to 20 trees per hectare depending on their size (fewer bigger trees);

2. Manage heather in out-of-play areas by cutting on a longer rotation (15 to 25 years is appropriate), with frequency dependent on local heather growth conditions. Cuttings should be removed. Leave up to 20 per cent of the heather area to develop naturally into old age – this is important for several rare invertebrates;

3. If possible, and if compatible with golf requirements, introduce light seasonal grazing with suitable sheep or cattle at a rate of no more than 0.2 grazing livestock units per hectare;

4. Develop and implement a programme of tree removal to increase the area of heather roughs and restore the course to more open heathland. This will also help to reduce shading on greens, improve movement of air over greens and reduce damage by tree roots. The plan should ensure that:

• all timber and offcuts are removed from the heath – unsold or unused logs can be left in adjacent retained woodland as appropriate, to provide dead wood habitat;

• where an organic litter layer of over 2.5cm thickness has developed, it should be scraped off to expose the heather seedbank and remove nutrients – this can be composted for use elsewhere.  Where the litter layer is thinner, disturb the soil to expose seed;

• selected specimen trees are retained at a density of 10 to 20 trees per hectare, providing that the resulting seedlings are managed.

5. Establish clear marked pathways through heather areas, especially across carries, using natural wood edging to prevent access into heather by trolleys;

6. Control invasion of coarse grasses into heather areas through use of appropriate selective herbicides as necessary. Note that a small proportion of native fine grasses (less than 20 per cent cover by area) is beneficial and appropriate to heathland;

7. Seek advice about the presence of rare species before undertaking management work. This could be done by opening up your draft management plan to consultation with key people, especially local representatives of Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Countryside Council for Wales, as well as the RSPB and your local wildlife trust.

Dr Keith Duff
By Dr Keith Duff November 13, 2011 17:12
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