Can golf help protect sensitive habitats?

15 July 2016

There is an old persistent argument which maintains that golf courses have a negative effect on natural habitats and the environment.

Links golf courses, set on sand dunes, are a mix of beautiful sporting venue and natural wonder in their own right. However, these golf courses have, in the past, had a bad reputation amongst the purists of habitat conservation and applied ecologists.

The vast majority of sand dune studies exclude links golf courses, deeming them too modified to truly represent sand dune habitat. 

It is true that the average golfer is unlikely to see (or want to see) orchids poking out of the fairway or sand martins in the bunkers, but links courses mostly comprise of out of play, semi-wild areas; typically 60-70% of the area of a links golf course could be out of play. This swathe of wilderness can shelter a range of rare animals and plants. If you also consider that over 35% of sand dunes in the UK have links courses upon them, then golf has a lot to offer to this fragile habitat.   

Dr Graham Earl, from the Ecology Research Group at Canterbury Christ Church University, has spent the last four years surveying and experimentally manipulating parts of the sand dunes across three golf courses just outside Sandwich in Kent, as part of his PhD.

Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, Princes Golf Club, and the Open venue, Royal St. Georges Golf Club, all allowed Graham access and gave support. Graham set up the most comprehensive dipwell network in any sand dune to date in the UK, allowing him to investigate the relationship between vegetation types and hydro-chemical composition of the ground water. 

Dr Earl’s main aim was to work out how best to manage the out of play rough areas to benefit wildlife. Changes in management such as burning the former years’ grass growth were found to work best in some situations to encourage rare species. In other situations, scraping the vegetation from the surface of the sand dune showed better results. 

Using research to optimise sand dune management was shown to make this management less labour intensive and less costly. As a result, Royal St. Georges Golf Club has adopted burning as a management technique to control natural grassed areas out of play on the course. 

An extension to the Sandwich Bay project is now in development and includes a number of additional British Open courses participation, including St. Andrews and Carnoustie golf links. By visiting different types of sand dune across the UK and widening the knowledge gained at Sandwich Bay, Dr Earl hopes to top be able to help golf courses preserve the UK’s natural sand dune habitats. 

Notes to editors

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services.

With 17,000 students across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.

  • 95% of our UK undergraduates were in employment or further studies six months after completing their studies*.
  • We are one of the South East’s largest providers of education, training and skills leading to public service careers.

*2013/14 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey



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Last edited: 14/12/2018 22:52:00