Retrospective - The collaboration between golf course development and national conservancy body
Golf course: Machrihanish Dunes
National body: Scottish Natural Heritage
The partnership between Machrihanish Dunes and SNH goes back many years before the application for the construction of a golf course came anywhere near the local planning office. The Barr family who have farmed the land since 1964 had regular discussions with representatives from the Lochgilphead office, weighing up the benefits to flora from grazing animals against the erosion damage caused by Wintering cattle. The botanists and ecologists party to those discussions, had ample opportunity to study the ground in these days and were armed with all the information they needed to form a management plan in conjunction with the golf course developers to ensure that the delicate infrastructure of the site would not be unduly harmed and that areas that were being damaged by agriculture could be reclaimed as part of the golf development process.
Joint Project Aims
- Enable natural processes to continue to operate.
- Maintain and where possible enhance the condition of all SSSI habitats and maintain their extent.
- Protect and maintain populations of key species.
- Reduce populations of noxious weeds.
- Eliminate rabbits from the site and repair all past rabbit damage.
- Provide and maintain a public route from the access road to the beach.
- Minimise damage from Winter salt spray and sand blow.
- Provide and maintain a network of maintenance routes and golf paths which keep foot and machine traffic away from important dune and dune slack habitats and their rare species.
- Increase awareness of the ecological importance of the site and its conservation management among greens staff, golfer and the general public.
The Working Process
The intent from the very outset was that a golf course should not impact on the site in such a detrimental way that the nature of the land would be irreversibly changed. No major earth moving would be permitted by SNH but this was exactly in keeping with the wishes of the developers, who had chosen the site because of its outstanding natural contours rather than despite them and had no wish to remove any of the inherent subtlety of the land.
Today, the advantages of not re-contouring the land can clearly be seen - not only has the floral diversity been retained and enhanced, but the course has matured far more quickly and the subtle contours which would have been bulldozed out have been retained and now make the course far more fun to play.
Just 7 acres (2.8hc.) of land was re-contoured to form the golf course, which allowed the construction team to work on a small number of pre-agreed areas. The playing areas were seeded with perennial links grasses to ensure that these areas would quickly assume a natural look should the course ever be allowed to grow over. SNH led this sensible approach of using the exact species found naturally in the West coast links environment, which provided the firm and fast conditions desirable for golfers and that are easier to maintain.
The route of the golf course seems eclectic at first viewing, but a study of the aerial map shows how the layout is routed away from the most sensitive areas of mobile dunes and slacks. The dune slacks are maintained annually in accordance with the SNH led management plan, and the flow of water through them is continually monitored to ensure that inlets and outflows are not blocked to such an extent that water levels would be changed, impacting negatively on the flora.
The mobile and semi-mobile dunes outwith the main playing areas are managed to ensure that species diversity is retained and that plants can grow unhindered as before the golf course. If a fragile dune suffers from too much traffic it will lose cover and erode, but at Machrihanish Dunes it is equally important to ensure that grass cover does not become too long and thick, for orchids and sedges can quickly become smothered and squeezed out of existence in such an environment.
The management plan took into consideration SNH`s desire to have the site cleared of all thistles, ragwort, nettles and rabbits. Nettles reduced due to no unsolicited dumping occurring as they struggle to survive in a links rootzone naturally deprived of nutrient. Thistles hand-picked and removed from the site every year before they seed. Ragwort has been picked with only enough plants left in-situ to provide a living environment for the population of cinnabar moths. Rabbits population now drastically reduced in comparison to what it once was and has now plateaued.
The relationship with SNH has educated us to ensure that we minimise any negative impact that the golf course might have. As a result the course looks better and is much more fun to play because of the responsible way it is managed. Regular meetings with local SNH representatives are held to assess positive and negative aspects of our work, and the management plan is tweaked by those experts accordingly. To have an enthusiastic expert from SNH at the end of the phone is invaluable and means we can pick the brains of our local botanists and ecologists to inform decisions we make. I am proud to work at a golf course so committed to maintaining the site in a responsible manner that not only protects the environment for generations to enjoy in the future but also impacts very positively on the enjoyment of their guests as they play the golf course.
As a greenkeeping team we are proud of our roles as custodians of the site - we see our presence as a tenancy rather than ownership. We are not arrogant enough to think that the fragile and stunningly beautiful environment that our course is situated upon will not still be living and breathing long after ourselves, the club and indeed the game of golf itself have ceased to exist.
Simon Freeman: Head Greenskeeper, Mach. Dunes
Delivering on the Aims - 7 years on
1. Enable natural processes to continue to operate.
Retained and improved vegetation cover. Vegetation managed to provide perfect growing environment for the protected species of the SSSI. Regular consultation with SNH ensures that management practises are tailored to ensuring that these natural processes can continue uncompromised.
2. Maintain and where possible enhance the condition of all SSSI habitats and maintain their extent.
Regular monitoring of orchid numbers and species diversity marked by GPS points ensures that the condition of habitats is not being adversely affected. These habitats have been improved with the removal of dumped agricultural machinery, the clearing and turfing of areas damaged by agriculture and rabbits, and the removal of thistles, nettles and ragwort.
3. Protect and maintain populations of key species.
The Summer flower show at Machrihanish Dunes is an absolute joy to behold. Through the implemented management plan agreed with SNH, these plants now cover a wider area of the site than they did before. Areas that formed the machinery dumps and Winter feeding areas for cattle and were turfed over at the time of construction are now populated by a variety of flora.
4. Reduce populations of noxious weeds.
The management plan has reduced the populations of thistles, nettles and ragwort - 15% of the ragwort is retained to provide a feeding environment for the cinnabar moth. Removal of thistles and ragwort takes place by hand and the nettles have reduced by removing clippings and other waste materials.
5. Eliminate rabbits from the site and repair all past rabbit damage.
Initial controls were carried out during construction including turfing over their burrows. A manageable number of rabbits still live, feed and dig on the links, but are controlled sufficiently to ensure that they do not get out of hand.
6. Provide and maintain a public route from the access road to the beach.
Early in the course`s existence a walkway with a bridge that covers a fragile mobile dune was installed. This path is extremely popular with locals, tourists and surfers, and is used by dozens of people on a daily basis.
7. Minimise damage from Winter salt spray and sand blow.
Marram planting was instigated in areas agreed by SNH, this includes areas that protect grass cover, and some that provides structural integrity. The marram provides a stunning transition to the golf holes in keeping with traditional West coast links courses.
8. Provide and maintain a network of maintenance routes and golf paths which keep foot and machine traffic away from important dune and dune slack habitats and their rare species.
Looking at the aerial photo the areas of specific importance on our site identified with SNH show the course layout avoiding these areas. Any paths near these areas have been lined with soft rubber matting which a) defines the path and persuades people not to wander away from it, and b) protects the environment under the path. Should the golf course ever cease to exist for any reason, these mats could be lifted and the ground returned to its original condition.
9. Increase awareness of the ecological importance of the site and its conservation management amongst green staff, golfer and the general public.
A whole section of the club’s website is devoted to explaining the responsible management of the links. The greenkeeping team promote ecological practices and are proud to be involved in the management plan, maintaining bird boxes that target specific species and protecting the rare plants that flower on the links during the Summer and Autumn. An information board highlighting the flora and fauna was placed at the entrance to the path leading the public from the road to the beach - educating the public in ways to minimise their personal impact on the environment.
Many thanks to Keith Martin, Owner’s Representative and Simon Freeman, Course Manager for their contributions. See more at machrihanishdunes.com