Executive summary (English & local language)
This audit was conducted over two days in November 2016. The audit comprised an initial meeting with representatives of estate management and staff, including the team responsible for management of the golf course. The visit also incorporated a tour of the hotel and associated amenities and facilities, a walkover survey of some of the wider woodland and parkland areas, and a walk through of the golf course accompanied by the course managers, and a review of environmental documentation and evidence of various sustainability initiatives which have been undertaken at the estate in the past c. 5-7 years.
Ashford Castle Golf Course sits on the c. 300 acre (121 hectare) Ashford Castle estate, 1 mile southeast of the village of Cong in Southern Co. Mayo, straddling the border between Co. Mayo and Co. Galway. At one time occupying 26,000 acres (10,521 hectares), the Castle estate has been an important feature of local cultural and economic activity since the13th Century; today it is recognised worldwide as a premium tourist destination, including being listed as one of National Geographic Society’s "Unique Lodges of the World".
The estate lies on the north shore of Lough Corrib in the townland of Strandhill, bordered to the north by the R345 and R346 regional roads, and to east and west by agricultural lands. The estate is bisected by the River Cong as it runs between the village of Cong and its outflow to the northern edge of Lough Corrib. The river rises above ground just to the west of Cong village, but has its true source at Lough Mask further to the north west, from which it first flows underground through karst bedrock for approximately 4km. A short bridge over the river connects the Castle and its car park (west of the river, in Co. Galway) with the main estate entry road (coming off the R346 regional road at Gortnaroe) and the outlying parklands which include the golf course (east of the river, in Co. Mayo). The body of the Lough and much of its shoreline in Galway and Mayo is designated as a protected area under the EU Habitats Directive (i.e as a Special Area of Conservation, or SAC) and the EU Birds Directive (as a Special Protection Area or SPA). It is also listed as a proposed Natural Heritage Area (pNHA) under the Irish Wildlife Act (as amended in 2000). The extents of these three designations are slightly different, as they are based on different ecological considerations, but all three cover the surface waters within the estate from the bridge south into the Corrib, and all of the adjoining shores and wetland areas. A portion of Kinlough Woods also lies within the SAC and SPA.
The Galway Record of Monuments and Places identifies three protected structures / archaeological constraints on western (Galway) portion of the estate: the Castle itself, and a folly and Lisheenard ringfort both of which are to the north west of the carpark (see RMP sheet GA027, records no. 5, 6 and 4 respectively). There are no constraints listed within the eastern portion of the estate on the Mayo RMP, though it is worth noting that the settlement of Cong itself is listed (sheet MA120, record no. 05315). The estate was initially established by the de Burgh family in the early 13th century, a few decades after the Norman knight William de Burgh (the first of the family to arrive in Ireland) attacked Cong in 1203, beginning a long history of intimate association between the village of Cong and the Ashford estate. In addition to the main hotel, the estate also includes The Lodge at Ashford Castle, built in the 1860s as a residence for estate managers and which now serves as a 60 room hotel, managed separately from the Castle but still part of the estate business since 2014.
The playing areas of the golf course at Ashford Castle occupy approximately one fifth of the site (c. 60 acres / 24 hectares). The course was established in the 1970s in an area that was formerly a deer park and livestock pasture. It is surrounded by mixed woodland and can be described as a typical parkland course, with fairways separated by treelines and small wooded stands. The course was initially developed by estate owner John A. Mulcahy to a design by Eddie Hackett, with later input from Christy O’Connor Snr. Hackett’s approach to course architecture was to rely upon natural landforms and landscape features to guide course design, with minimal changes to topography. At Ashford Castle the result is a relatively flat course retaining the natural, gently south-westward sloping aspect towards Lough Corrib, with numerous old growth woodland and hedge areas.
Tree cover includes a mixture of broadleaf and coniferous trees, with a diversity of native and ornamental species. Comparing current aerial photographs with historic Ordnance Survey maps (completed c. 1897 – 1913) it is clear that few if any major trees or thickets were disturbed during course development, and much of the existing woodland and treeline areas date to at least early Victorian times. The wooded areas associated with the course cover extend to westward to the river, covering approximately 70 acres (28 hectares), with at least twice that area of woodland within the estate to the west of the river. Historical maps indicate that the greater portion of this woodland was planted sometime in the mid to late 19th Century, with small pockets close to the R345 and in Kinlough Woods dating earlier perhaps to the late 18th Century. The woods were once used as a shooting reserve for the estate, with woodcock (now a species of conservation concern in Ireland) being encouraged as a favoured quarry.
The layout of the golf course has remained largely unchanged in the past 40 years, though there have been several small scale upgrade and redesign efforts over the years. This has included some work to create a second tee box on each hole and the creation of a putting green at the southern end of the course in 2006, and realignment of rough and reduction in fairway area on some holes since 2015. Some considerable works have also been undertaken to address issues of waterlogging on the western half of the course, though it appears that this has not significantly altered the play of the affected holes.
Since they took ownership of Ashford Castle in 2013, Red Carnation has invested heavily in the restoration of the Castle and its grounds, including landscaping works to enhance garden and woodland features and improve support heritage protection. An environmental programme had been in place since 2008, and this has been expanded in recent years to include setting up a Green Team comprising staff and management from the main operational areas of the Castle which meets on a monthly basis.
Sustainability appears to be a core principle for Red Carnation. As a brand of the Travel Corporation, Red Carnation is linked with the TreadRight Foundation, a sustainability initiative set up by the Travel Corporation to promote sustainable tourism. Ashford Castle has membership of Green Hospitality, an initiative established by the Irish EPA, Fáilte Ireland and other partners to promote resource efficiency in the hospitality sector, and Green Tourism U.K.
Through these memberships Ashford Castle has won several awards and accreditations for its environmental initiatives and broad efforts to deliver a sustainable tourism offering. The resort has demonstrated a commitment to principles of sustainable development and has implemented definitive actions in several key areas such as waste management and recycling, energy saving and heritage promotion. Community engagement is particularly strong and several impressive initiatives have been put in place to encourage all members of staff to interact with the community in Cong and surrounding areas, including through on-site mini-festivals and open days based on environmental themes. Staff are regularly kept informed of progress on environmental projects and targets, and it was clear during interviews conducted as part of the audit that there is a general sense of pride in local heritage and the role of Ashford Castle in the community.
A Green Team has been in place at Ashford Caste management for several years. The Team is led by the Deputy General Manager and meets each month in conjunction with one of the weekly Health and Safety meetings. The Green Team is tasked with maintaining progress towards environmental objectives and targets set out for their current sustainability awards, and produces action plans with responsibilities divided up by department. Minutes for the Green Team meetings were available on file.
The greenskeeping staff / golf course managers (an independent company, Greenmile Landscapes Ltd., under full-time contract to Ashford Castle) are included in company communications on sustainability issues and are well appraised of all environmental initiatives which have been put in place, but the GEO Certification is the first sustainability accreditation scheme considered by Ashford Castle which deals directly with the golf course and which requires specific actions relating to the sustainability of course management. Greenmile Landscapes have undertaken a number of their own projects to enhance the ecological value of the golf course, and appear genuinely committed to minimising the environmental impacts of course management. They have a broad knowledge of local biodiversity and environmental conditions, and have taken a number of steps to maintain and enhance habitats and encourage some wildlife, limit chemicals use and switch to more sustainable resources, and minimise dependence upon vehicles.
The greenkeeping and ground maintenance staff (Greenmile Landscapes) have a good general appreciation for biodiversity and local landscape character, and in some ways local wildlife and habitats are almost instinctively factored into various management activities. Staff have expressed an interest in enhancing existing woodland habitats, and have already started sowing wildflower mixtures in some of the rough and semi-rough areas.
The recent drainage improvement works for the course have created a small wet grassland / marsh area to the western edge of the course which is likely to develop into an interesting feature, and a project has been initiated to support insect pollinators, including by seeding areas of rough / semirough with wildflower seed mix. A tree care programme has also been put in place on the estate, though details were a little unclear at the time of the audit.
All of this is very encouraging, and reflects an overall desire to ensure that the golf course works as a part of the local ecosystem. A system of gathering more formal knowledge of the ecological status of the golf course, the links between the golf course and the adjacent protected areas, the conservation status of habitats and species occurring on the course, and monitoring potential threats to biodiversity is currently being put in place.
Information from Greenmile Landscapes suggests that the mixture of grass species within the managed playing areas has in some places been allowed to develop into a semi-natural, and rather than spend considerable effort combatting encroachment of wild grasses, targeted intervention is used as and where needed. This kind of extensive approach seems to be ideal for a small course which experiences considerable rainfall, and it helps to encourage greater soil biodiversity whilst also increasing turf resilience. In addition, staff explained that some areas of rough and semi-rough have been expanded and seeded with wild flower mixtures in recent years to encourage a greater diversity of flora and create new habitat for other wildlife; this also has the effect of further strengthening these marginal areas and reducing water demand on the edges of the playing surfaces. Data submitted in OnCourse supports an informal method of record keeping.
As might be expected for a 9-hole course in the one of the wettest locations in Ireland, water usage on Ashford Castle golf course is minimal. An irrigation system was put in place in the 1990s, but it appears that it was never fully operational, and it has been redundant now for many years. Greenmile Landscapes report that rainfall appears to have increased significantly over the past 15 years (as is expected for this region as an impact of climate change), and therefore water demand for watering greens, tees and fairways is very low. Light soiling on vehicles and equipment is usually removed using pressurised air rather than water, which reduces water demand for operational purposes. When water is required for course use, it is abstracted from the River Cong and transported in a bulk container and either applied directly to playing areas or temporarily stored near the maintenance shed. Use of surface water helps to diversify supply and reduces the environmental footprint associated with reliance on mains water, though surface water abstraction could potentially raise some sustainability issues.
Information provided during the audit indicates that there are two sources of water for the estate: water from the River Cong is used on the golf course, and mains water supplied by Mayo County Council is used for all other operational areas.
Abstraction from surface waters generally requires a license from the local authority. It is particularly important that any abstraction from water associated with a designated nature conservation area is carefully controlled and monitored. The threshold for a licence is usually determined on a case by case basis, though a typical cut-off is an upper limit of 10m3 of abstracted water in one day. It is highlyunlikely that abstraction at Ashford Castle reaches this volume regularly and in fact it might only be likely in the peak of summer warm weather, if at all. Nevertheless, in order for local authorities to obtain a clear picture of water abstraction rates across the whole region it is important that they be notified of any ongoing abstraction activities. In order to ensure that Ashford Castle is on a sound legal footing and to demonstrate engagement with the local authority on water management, this should be addressed.
Ashford Castle has been monitoring energy use throughout the hotel for several years, and a number of projects have been undertaken to reduce demand and improve efficiency, including engaging staff and hotel guests on energy saving measures, and converting many areas to low energy lighting. Each of the main buildings on site is metered separately, and figures were available in file. However, there has been no formal effort to monitor or report energy use on the golf course. Greenmile Landscapes did have some figures for total fuel purchases available, but the information only covered 2016, and it was not possible to determine where the fuel was used.
Although the course energy demand is minimal – vehicles are used only when necessary, and a fleet of electric golf carts is in place for visitors – it important that energy use on the golf course is incorporated into the overall energy reporting and improvement system for the estate. This should also include the golf shop and associated facilities for visitors.
A formal sustainable procurement policy is currently being put in place, with rules, objectives or targets set out in regards to ensuring that purchases are based on ethical, environmental or social standards. Some considerable effort has been made to purchase foods and various services locally, and while this is promising the concept of sustainable procurement should be rolled out across all functions, with relevant staff trained appropriately.
As with water usage, the decision as to when and where to apply fertiliser and plant protection products appears to be taken on a day by day basis, and is based on visual inspection and assessment of weather conditions. Greenmile Landscapes reported that fungal and bacterial infections on turfgrass are spot-treated, and chemicals are only applied in response to an outbreak. There is no blanket application of chemicals, and application is remedial, not preventative. The fertiliser selected for use on the course is organic, based on animal manure, and Greenmile report that it appears to reduce development of thatch and improves soil quality. From an ecological perspective, manure based fertiliser would also be expected to enhance above ground and below ground biodiversity.
Overall the approach seems to be to minimise chemicals use, as much to minimise costs as to avoid excess inputs to the environment, and it is encouraging. That being said, nothing about the approach has been documented, so it is hard to confirm any established procedures, and there is nothing on file against which to compare future practice or set new objectives. I would recommend that the approach should be formalised, or at least that some written record of the approach is prepared, and updated annually to reflect any changes in practice, if required. This should include a note on the criteria used in selecting specific chemical or biological products, which should take any potential environmental impacts into account.
Ashford Castle has previously won awards for good environmental practice and its waste operations have been audited for other certification schemes or awards. Staff seem to be fully engaged in recycling and waste reduction initiatives and environmental awareness raising is a key aspect of what the Green Team does.
The course does not have any formal office or clubhouse buildings and there are no toilet or canteen facilities, so there is no sewage output or piped storm drainage on the course itself. All wastewater from normal operations at the castle is discharged to the local authority wastewater system. The adjacent buildings and car park areas have storm drainage systems in place, and it may be assumed that these discharge to Lough Corrib and / or the River Cong. Since the course is immediately adjacent to a sensitive surface water body and internationally protected lake and wetlands, some assessment of storm runoff discharges should be undertaken; whilst the risk of significant contamination to surface waters may be low, Ashford Castle has a legal responsibility (under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, as implemented in Ireland by Statutory Instrument S.I. No. 477 of 2011) to ensure that steps are taken to assess and minimise any risks. As a minimum, an effort should be made to identify the main point-outputs (i.e. specific discharge pipes which release water from car parks, roofs etc) and the general direction of diffuse outputs (i.e. over ground and subsurface rainwater flow from grassed areas towards the lake and river) and to ensure that the risk of contaminants entering the protected areas is minimised.
Greenmile Landscapes reported that the quantity of chemicals on site at any one time is very low, and there is no long term storage of chemicals on site, with a few exceptions e.g., with small amounts of left-over product. In general, chemicals are only purchased when necessary; since the main supplier of plant protection products is based locally, this means that orders can be placed and turned around in a short timeframe and this reduces the need to hold large quantities in storage. That being said, even temporary storage for the period between purchase and use of the full quantity must meet certain standards to avoid risks of fire or accident. The area around the maintenance shed was fairly well kept and litter-free, and considering the high standards set for the rest of the estate it can be assumed that pollution risk from golf course chemical waste is very low.
Since purchasing Ashford Castle in 2013, Red Carnation have seen heritage restoration a major aspect of their investment. This includes understanding and promoting the history of different rooms and structures within Ashford Castle, and ensuring that refurbishment and repair works are carried out sensitively. As one would expect with a large estate of this age, Ashford Castle has seen numerous changes in ownership, periods of decline and decay, and several rebuilding and restoration efforts over the centuries. Much of this history is recorded and displayed prominently to visitors along with related artefacts and artwork throughout the Castle buildings, demonstrating not only the rich cultural heritage of the location but also the interest and dedication of staff and management in preserving and communicating it to the public. This has been fostered by Red Carnation, and embraced by the staff which includes families who have been employed on the site for up to nine generations. Red Carnation is considering the development of a museum to better share information on estate history with guests.
The Castle itself is recognised as a protected structure, details of the other protected monuments on the estate were not yet on file (the folly and Lisheenard ringfort), and this should be addressed. Efforts should be made to understand their importance and context to ensure they are not put at risk by estate operations, and to provide some information to visitors about those features.
The Green Team at Ashford Castle is a notable example of how an environmental working group should operate. It consists of senior management and meets regularly to discuss the progress of ongoing activities and to explore ideas for new projects; it regularly reports to all staff, and encourages their engagement in sustainability initiatives. Staff are not required to participate in any one area, but they are encouraged to identify projects which might personally inspire them, which – according to staff I interviewed while on site – promotes a sense of partnership and encourages involvement. In particular, the frequent environment-themed open days during which staff, visitors and the local community come together for various outdoor events encourages an atmosphere of fun and gives the idea of environmental responsibility a practical, community focus.
It is encouraging that there has been some contact with external advisors and I recommend that the engagement with statutory bodies for heritage and nature conservation is increased, and that local Heritage Officers and the District Conservation Officer with NPWs be invited to speak to staff or to participate in future open days.
Ashford Castle has sponsored several community projects both in Cong and the wider Mayo community. This includes providing resources to local Men’s Shed groups (www.menssheds.ie), which they in turn use to provide bird and bat boxes and bee hives for Ashford Castle, and sponsoring the local Cong Community Centre, located nearby. It is understood that the local community is also involved in the open days and other environmental events on the estate. The level of engagement with the community overall is very impressive.
- Awareness Raising Materials
- Certification Report
- Emergency Incident Plan
- Environmental Management Plan
- Environmental Policy
- Internal Reports
- Minutes of Meetings
- Register of Accidents
Ashford Castle, a Red Carnation hotel, has won numerous accolades as a tourist resort that is proud of its history and active in promoting local heritage and sustainable development. The staff at Ashford Castle have demonstrated a real interest in protecting the environment and much of the work which has been carried out to this end is genuinely impressive and inspiring.
It is clear that the management and staff fully recognise and embrace their role in preserving the natural and cultural heritage of Ashford Castle and its environs, and they have demonstrated a real interest in advancing the resort’s reputation as an exemplary sustainable tourism destination. The focus on sustainability and the associated awards that have been received, have largely been on activities in the Castle itself as the main tourism offering, - i.e. particularly the hotel, restaurants, spa facilities and gardens etc. – and only more generally on the wider estate. This provides a tremendous opportunity for the golf facility to channel and champion its sustainability activities to guests and visitors, which will only go to improving the offering of the resort and I look forward to seeing its development over this and future certification periods.
Drainage project has resulted in a marshy wetland habitat which will prove to be highly ecologically valuable
Low energy lighting and awareness raising
Dedicated 'green team' internal environmental working group
Sponsorship of local community projects
Cultural heritage restoration of the hotel and associated education for guests, visitors and staff