Wetland management on golf courses

Dr Keith Duff
By Dr Keith Duff December 25, 2011 10:29

Wetland features are found on many golf courses in Britain, and can be natural or man-made. They include lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, ditches and flushes, and can be found anywhere from the coast to the uplands. They are important both for their ecological value and for the playing challenge they present to the golfer. However, they are sensitive environments, which require careful management if their golfing and ecological character is to be maintained over time.

Open water bodies, varying in size from large lakes to small ponds, are often significant features in the landscape, and provide breeding and over-wintering sites for many easily recognised bird species, such as mallard, coot, moorhen and grey heron. They are also important for a range of other species, such as tufted duck, great crested grebe, water rail and kingfisher.

Areas of running water found on golf courses may include rivers, streams and ditches, and are often fringed by areas of wet grassland. Birds will breed in the vegetation along the edges of these features, which support rich insect assemblages fed on by birds. Characteristic birds found in such areas include kingfisher, grey wagtail, reed bunting and several species of warbler.

Lakes and ponds

Areas of standing water, often fed by inflow from rivers, streams, ditches or ground water, are naturally dynamic habitats which change over time, so need to be managed periodically. The best habitats for birds and other wildlife tend to be structurally diverse, with shallow and deeper areas, and some trees, scrub, reeds and grasses around the edges. Where fed from turbid watercourses, they have a tendency to silt up over time, causing marginal vegetation to gradually spread out into the water body, which becomes steadily overgrown, losing the open water character of the pond. Some of this colonising vegetation (such as reeds) can be very important for birds, including water rail, bearded tit and reed bunting, and so should only be removed if necessary to maintain the balance of open water. Also, the most important ‘open water’ species, such as black necked grebe, pochard and garganey, need these edge habitats. The ideal is to maintain a balance by periodically excavating encroached areas to retain the overall character over the long term.

The hydrology and ecology of natural lakes and ponds is complex, and many important species, especially invertebrates, are not immediately obvious. Long established and naturally formed water bodies may need detailed ecological assessment to guide management. Initial advice on whether your water body is ecologically sensitive, and so warrants a detailed assessment, can often be provided by the local Wildlife Trust. Specialist ecological consultants will then be able to survey the species present, some of which (for example great crested newt) may be legally protected and require particular treatment. In some cases this may attract grant support to offset costs.

Implementation of the management programme is best done on a rotational basis as part of a long term plan, so that only part of the water body is treated at a time. This applies both to de-silting operations (the frequency of this will depend on rates of siltation), and to vegetation management (again, this will depend on rates of colonisation and vegetation type). Where silt loads are a problem, the best management is to install silt traps in the inlet.

Timing is important. Management is best done in autumn and early winter (September to late November), avoiding the bird breeding season (April to August), and before normal high winter flow rates. Depending on scale, some excavated material should be left on the bank of the lake or pond for a few days, so that invertebrates can get back into the water, but should be removed after this so that leachate from decomposing plant material does not enter the water, where it would reduce oxygen levels and damage the ecosystem. For the same reason, grass clippings should not be dumped or composted near water bodies or watercourses.

To support a varied bird community, it is useful to have a mix of trees and scrub, as well as tall vegetation like reed and bulrushes, around some of the margins of the water feature. This will provide shelter, nesting places and food sources for birds, and can also help the feature blend in with the surrounding environment. The mix of marginal vegetation present will influence the bird species which occupy the area, so further advice might be needed to secure an appropriate balance for your location. Sloping mown grassy banks all around the lake or pond will neither stop balls rolling into the hazard nor encourage birds (other thanCanadageese) to colonise the wetland.

Where opportunity allows, for example when creating or restoring a water body, it is helpful to design in shallow sloping bottoms to the edges of the pond, to allow marginal vegetation to develop. Hard steep edges, such as wooden or stone revetments, immediately adjacent to deeper water will make it difficult for valuable emergent vegetation to colonise.

Common terns and little ringed plover will nest on small gravel-capped islands in larger lakes. However, where these become heavily vegetated they can become colonised by gulls or Canada geese, the latter often being a problem on golf courses as a result of their grazing, trampling and fouling of mown turfgrass areas near the water. Managing small islands to prevent them becoming heavily vegetated should prevent this problem developing.

Aquatic life in ponds and lakes is very sensitive to the chemical environment, especially fertilisers and pesticides, and needs to be buffered against run-off from the golf course. A good way to do this is by establishing a 10 to 20 metre wide zone between managed turfgrass areas and ponds or lakes, in which no chemical treatments (including fertiliser application) are applied. This could be rough or semi-rough grassland, scrub or woodland. However, small ponds should not be surrounded by dense woodland or scrub as the high volumes of leaf litter which enter the pond will accelerate infilling, and their decomposition could lead to de-oxygenation and increases in nutrients. Lakes and ponds often suffer from algal blooms, transforming clear water environments into green soupy water, with consequent reductions in species’ diversity. Such blooms should not be chemically treated. A suitable remedial management solution is to use standard (small) barley straw bales at a rate of one bale per 400 square metres of water surface, put into the lake or pond in the early spring; this captures some of the phosphate that triggers algal blooms before they start.

Rivers, streams and ditches

These features are characterised by flowing water, and support different assemblages of birds from standing waters. Waterfowl such as ducks, coots and moorhens are less frequent, and tend to be replaced by species such as kingfisher, grey wagtail, reed bunting and several species of warblers. In larger rivers, particularly in the uplands, species such as goosander and red breasted merganser may occur. Generally, the management works which need to be considered are similar to those for standing waters, although dredging and silt removal is usually unnecessary on fast flowing rivers and streams, where flood episodes will naturally remove silt accumulations. In such situations, ecological succession is rarely an issue that golf course managers will need to consider.

Again, a professional ecological survey and advice should be sought when preparing a management plan, especially for smaller rivers and streams. In respect of birds, most of the key ecological features relate to the marginal vegetation on and adjacent to the banks of the watercourse. Again, rotational management of marginal vegetation on an approximately five-year cycle is desirable, although it will probably require a lighter touch than around lakes and ponds. Physical management should be carried out in late autumn to early winter (September to late November), not during the bird breeding season (April to August). It is essential that ditch banks are not maintained as smooth vegetation-free slopes. Trees, shrubs and emergent vegetation are essential to support birds, which will nest in the taller vegetation, and feed on insects living on the emergent plants.

Any plant material removed from the watercourse should not be left on the bank for more than a couple of days, so that nutrients do not leach back into the water as the plant material decomposes. In the same way, grass clippings should not be dumped or composted near lakes or ponds, leachate generated by decomposition of the material will have a damaging effect on the water body. Useful practical guidance on managing drainage channels can be found on the RSPB website. Visit www.rspb.org.uk and click on ‘Our Work’, then ‘Farming’, then ‘Advice for Farmers’, then ‘Managing habitats for wildlife’ and then ‘Drainage channels’.

In some places, where there are substantial vertical riverbanks, sand martins and kingfishers may excavate small tunnels for nest sites. These can be spectacular to watch during the summer months, and if present on your golf course, should not be disturbed. Avoid doing any management work in the vicinity of the nest site whilst birds are present during the summer months.

Whilst there may often be pressures to remove scrub and woody growth below trees, to make it easier to find balls and speed up play, it is better to leave such areas between managed turfgrass and watercourses, both to provide a buffer against chemical run-off, and to stop balls going into the hazard. At the same time it will provide vital nesting and feeding habitat for birds, and define the nature of the course more naturally. A buffer zone of 10 to 20 metres is desirable, and can be stepped so that heights increase away from the edge of the fairway.

Ditches, and sometimes slow-flowing streams can often suffer from algal blooms as a result of chemical enrichment from run-off. This is not such an issue for golf clubs on faster flowing streams and rivers, since run-off from the golf course is likely to be very small compared with inputs from elsewhere in the river catchment. However, where there are slow flowing streams or ditches, eutrophication can be a significant problem, but not one where the club can take direct action themselves since the causes will lie much more widely.

Alien invasive species

Wetland areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable to invasion by non-native species of plant which can spread very rapidly and overwhelm the existing plant community, and the birds which live in these areas. The most frequently encountered species are Australian swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii), Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and Giant hogweed. These plants are extremely difficult to control or eradicate once established, and your best chance of success if they appear is to deal with them immediately. Crassula is found in ponds and standing waters, whilst Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and Giant hogweed are riverbank plants. If you discover any of these species it is recommended that you contact your local Environment Agency or Scottish Environmental Protection Agency office for advice. You can also find very useful information in the Environment Agency booklet Guidance for the control of invasive weeds in or near fresh water, which is available on-line (type the title into a search engine). You will also find a wide range of detailed information sheets on the control of aquatic and riparian plants on the Centre for Aquatic Plant Management website, part of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (visit www.ceh.ac.uk and click on ‘Our Science’, then ‘Water’, then ‘Water Quality’ and then ‘Aquatic Plant Management’).

Cumberwell Park Golf Club

• The golf course supports nine separate water bodies, all of ecological significance.  The club policy is to establish buffer zones around their margins, to protect their ecology and to frame the golf course better.

• Management of reedmace is a key element of this, since it provides nesting habitat for birds such as moorhen, coot, mallard and great crested grebe, but needs to be contained so that the whole pond is not taken over. Reedmace extent is monitored annually and clearance is undertaken as necessary as a result.

Cardrona Hotel Golf & Country Club

• The course lies adjacent to the River Tweed, which is one ofBritain’s most near-natural river systems and is therefore of high ecological value; consequently it has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive. The club’s management policy takes full account of this and also addresses the wide range of other wetland habitats which occur on the property. A diverse range of birds breed along theTweed, including little grebe, goosander, ringed plover, snipe, curlew, kingfisher, sand martin, grey wagtail, yellow wagtail, grasshopper warbler and sedge warbler.  The bankside areas, and the areas between the fairways and the river, are managed as grass roughs, scrub and woodland patches, to ensure there is an ecological gradient between the playing areas and the river.

• Because of the need to protect the high water quality of the river, no mole or tile drains were permitted when the course was built, and the club has developed a network of open drains, swales, ponds and reedbeds to collect, clean and slow the water before it reaches the river. This has led to the creation of valuable wetland habitats on the course itself, which support a wide range of plants and invertebrates, as well as birds such as reed warbler, sand martin, kingfisher, coot and moorhen.

• Scrub is maintained along the margins of lakes and ponds to support breeding reed bunting and willow warbler.

Reay Golf Club

• Reay is the most northerly golf club in mainlandBritainand is a links course with significant wetland areas. The club has produced a yardage booklet which doubles as a well illustrated guide to the environmental and conservation management of the course. The club work closely with Scottish Natural Heritage in developing and delivering the environmental management plan for the golf course, and an ecological consultant (STRI) was commissioned to advise the golf club on what was present on the site, and how best to manage it.

• The club is committed to retaining appropriately managed deep vegetation along the banks of the streams and in localised pockets within slower moving areas of the stream itself. Heron often feed in these areas, along with dipper, swallow, yellow wagtail and pied wagtail. Rotational cutting and collecting of bank side vegetation is undertaken to prevent any one species from becoming overly dominant. Sand martin breed in the steep sandy banks along some of the streams, and management work avoids these areas when the birds are present.

• Summer flows in the streams can be reduced to just a trickle, which can lead to silt build up and algal growth which requires localised removal in particularly dry years. Localised clearance is undertaken on a rotational basis, never removing more than 25 per cent of the existing vegetation at any one time. This is undertaken at specific times of the year so that breeding or hibernating species are allowed to fulfil their life cycles without disturbance.

Bowood Park Hotel & Golf Club

• A programme for rotational management of the 13 water bodies on the golf course has been put in place and is designed to retain appropriate areas of perimeter vegetation.

• Invasion by reed and other aquatic plants had led to many of the water bodies becoming unattractive to the eye and ecologically poor.  About 75 per cent of the tall vegetation was removed, along with all the floating vegetation (common duckweed and Canadian pondweed), and the ponds were then desilted using a swing shovel excavator.  Ponds with reedmace were excavated to a depth in excess of two metres to prevent reinvasion.

Rookwood Golf Club   

• A relatively new course, converted from agricultural land in the 1990s. The course has many ponds and small lakes which are managed sympathetically for wildlife and which incorporate good buffer zones around the edges for breeding waterfowl.

• Most of the ponds on the course are part cleared of reed and silt during the dormant winter months on a three year cycle, one third at a time. This ensures that they remain water features, whilst retaining the wildlife that thrives in, on and around them.  Kingfisher is a characteristic breeding species here.

• The pond by the 18th hole had been left out of this programme and required a major restoration effort. The pond was cleared, and all reed and silt was left by the surrounds to enable the pond life to return once refilled. The pond was deepened and is now an attractive feature that is full of wildlife.

• The club have also produced a series of signs and leaflets about the strict water use policy which the club operates on the course and in the clubhouse.

Habitat management for wetland birds

1. Draw up a long-term management plan for your wetland habitats, preferably based on a detailed ecological assessment of them. The employment of an appropriate ecological consultant to help with this is recommended.

2. Implement the management plan on a rotational basis, so that only part of the water body is treated each year, thereby allowing species present on the site to move onto a safe area.

3. Do not carry out physical management works during the breeding season (April to August). Time your work for the late autumn to early winter (September to late November).

4. Do not leave plant material removed from water bodies on the bank for more than a couple of days, otherwise nutrients will leach back into the water. Similarly, do not dump grass clippings, or construct composting facilities, adjacent to water bodies.

5. Retain or plant trees, scrub and emergent vegetation along the edges of water bodies, to provide nesting places and feeding opportunities for birds.

6. Establish buffer zones 10 to 20 metres wide between managed turfgrass areas and water bodies, to protect against chemical run-off and to prevent balls running easily into the hazard.

7. Prevent small islands on small ponds or lakes becoming covered with dense vegetation, since this will often encourage unwanted species such asCanadageese or gulls. Maintaining them as bare gravel-topped islands is better.

8. Use barley straw bales, rather than chemical treatments, to deal with algal blooms in ponds and lakes. One bale per 400 square metres of water surface area is recommended.

Dr Keith Duff
By Dr Keith Duff December 25, 2011 10:29
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