Nature and Wildlife - Best Practice

Towards Best Practice in the sustainable management of sand dune habitats

The integration of management for golf and nature on the sefton coast


Golf courses have been a feature of the landscape of the Sefton Coast for over a century. The vast extent of sand dunes provided excellent terrain with marvellous views and were judged to be as good as the sandy links of the east coast of Scotland where the game first became popular. The first course on the Sefton Coast was developed by the West Lancashire Golf Club at Crosby in 1873, towards the southern end of the dune system. Since then, clubs have established courses along the length and breadth of the coast, with a present-day total of seven dune-land courses. Foster (1997) in "Links along the Line" has written an excellent account of the history and development of golf courses on the Sefton Coast. Golf courses today occupy over a quarter of the dune area, 550 ha out of a total of some 2000 ha, and much of this area includes the EU priority habitats of fixed dune and dune heath, with associated species such as the protected Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis. It is therefore essential, for the overall conservation of the dune system, that golf course management is sympathetic to nature and that clubs help to conserve their semi-natural duneland habitats.

Protection and development

Golf courses have undoubtedly protected large areas of dunes from other forms of development, particularly housing. This has helped to maintain the integrity of the dune system as a whole and limited the degree of fragmentation. The development of playing areas has obviously modified the natural duneland, although on the Sefton Coast only about 25 per cent of any course area is managed turf. Access is restricted to club members and visitors, and most players try to keep out of the rough! The golf courses can therefore act as real sanctuary areas for wildlife. Traditional golfing management has included mowing, some grazing, scrub clearance, ditching, pond and woodland management. Considerable expertise in habitat management has been gained indirectly by greenstaff and Green Committee members (most golf courses are run by members with a Green Committee responsible for estate management). The nature conservation importance of the golf courses on the Sefton Coast is confirmed by designations such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Site of Local Biological Importance (SLBI: a designation by Sefton Council). Some sites are additionally of international (Ramsar) or European (cSAC) importance.


The golf courses of the Sefton Coast support a magnificent diversity of duneland habitats and species. In addition to fixed dune and dune heath habitats are mobile dunes, dune slacks, dune grasslands, ponds, scrub, semi-natural woodlands and conifer plantations.

Sand Lizards are found on three of the courses, including the most northerly naturally-occurring population in the UK at Hesketh Golf Club. The Natterjack Toad Bufo calamita is also found on three courses, including two with recent successful re-introductions. The nationally rare Grey Hair-grass Corynephorus canescens is found in profusion at Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club. The dune heath at Formby Ladies Golf Club includes two of only three plants of Crowberry Empetrum nigrum known on the Sefton Coast. West Lancashire Golf Club is notable as having one of the highest Skylark Alauda arvensis population densities in the country. Royal Birkdale Golf Club contains exceptional dune slack habitats, Hillside Golf Club has perhaps the most dramatic high dunes, and the Formby Golf Clubs contain a great variety of dune and heath habitats.


Golf course management has had significant benefits for nature. However, as on the nature reserves it became obvious in the 1970s and 1980s that site quality was declining. This was particularly due to invasion by scrub and rank grass which began to dominate the open dunes following the outbreaks of myxomatosis in the mid 1950s. English Nature responded to this problem by preparing site management plans for those courses which included SSSIs (Royal Birkdale and Hesketh). These gave a description of the site, an analysis of its importance, a rationale for management and objectives with related prescriptions. Five year work programmes were also prepared. These plans were partially successful.

In 1996 a seminar was held at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club to launch a new golf and nature initiative on the Sefton Coast. This was the first time that representatives of all the Sefton Coast clubs had assembled to discuss environmental management. Follo wing this meeting all the clubs on the Sefton Coast worked with the Sefton Coast Life Project to prepare management plans and to take action to conserve important habitats. The initiative was successful and has helped to renew a partnership between golf and nature and raise awareness about the importance of managing the dune system as a whole.

The new management plans follow the general format of the earlier English Nature plans but with some significant differences. The plans have been produced in partnership with the clubs and have been made more golfer-friendly, by including a hole-by-hole section, first developed by the Sports Turf Research Institute, in the rationale. An important prescription in these plans is to produce rare features maps to advise wildlife management and other activities on the course. The plans also recommend that a Conservation Officer be appointed by each club to oversee the works detailed in the plan and to provide continuity. Ideally the Conservation Officer would be part of a group including the Chair of Green, the Head Greenkeeper, an English Nature officer where appropriate, a representative of the Sefton Coast Management Scheme and any other appropriate representatives from the club or environmental organisations.


Quite often conservation management on golf courses and nature reserves is a form of gardening using fairly costly, but small scale, projects to conserve specific features. A good example would be the selective cutting of scrub on south-facing slopes to improve habitat for the Sand Lizard. Such actions have been necessary to compensate for the restriction of natural dune processes in golf course areas. But management practices should, wherever possible, work more with natural processes and at the habitat level.

Conservation management needs to be considered more strategically in relation to the whole dune system. For example habitat links could provide wildlife corridors within and beyond the golf courses.


Scrub management

Scrub is a natural component of fixed dunes but its spread needs to be controlled to conserve open dune habitats. Grazing is the natural way in which the growth of scrub is checked. On some courses rabbits will help to control scrub but as a pest species, they are seldom tolerated in sufficient nu mbers to be effective. Scrub clearance on golf courses should aim to link up the sometimes fragmented open dune habitats. In some areas dune habitat has survived beneath the scrub (especially under White Poplar Populus alba ) and restoration is relatively simple. As a general principle fixed dune areas should be cleared of non-native species such as White Poplar and the more aggressive native scrub species including Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides and birches Betula spp. should be reduced to an acceptable minimum. Some scrub however should be managed to grade into woodland and could be coppiced to enhance its value for wildlife. Other areas have been identified in management plans where the succession from scrub to woodland will be left to nature.

Scrub clearance is necessary to improve the habitat for rare species such as the Sand Lizard. South-facing banks are particularly important, and a mosaic of bare sand, short and medium height grasses and herbs, together with some low woody shrubs such as Creeping Willow Salix repens, Gorse Ulex europaeus or Heather Calluna vulgaris , has been found to be the optimal habitat (Cooke, 1991). Cutting and over-turning turves, especially on south or south-east facing slopes, to create bare sand patches on areas no larger than one metre square, can provide valuable basking and egg-laying areas, though they need regular weeding. These works are best undertaken in May when Sand Lizards have emerged from hibernation.

Scrub can be cleared in several ways, but all work is best done in the winter months for least disturbance to wildlife. Cutting with chainsaws or hand saws can be followed by stump treatment with an approved selective herbicide. Stump treatment is most effective before the end of the year and is less effective if there is rainfall soon after application. In the following growing season regrowth sometimes needs re-spraying with herbicide. Any treatment in areas with Creeping Willow and Heather undergrowth will require care and spraying may not be appropriate.

On some sites with large areas of scrub, machinery such as excavators and tractors with specialised grabs can be used. Fire sites should be chosen carefully to minimise damage to habitats and should be buried under at least a metre of pure sand.

Gorse requires coppicing to maintain its vigour. The central portion of old stands should be cut first and when this has regenerated sufficiently, the outer region can be cut. If Gorse cover is required it can be introduced to areas either as young plants grown in a nursery or by rotovating in Gorse litter and seed.


Mowing is an essential feature of golf course management which helps to retain open dune grasslands in the semi-rough and rough. By slight modifications to mowing regimes great benefits can be gained for wildlife. For example, by varying the time of cutting or relaxing the mowing regime, flowers can be allowed to set seed. Other areas can be mown in alternate years or less frequently to open up the sward and to provide invertebrates and small mammals with a suitable habitat mosaic.

Some courses may need to consider whether they are mowing too great an area and too often. The area in front of the tee, or carry, may offer opportunities for reduced mowing, whilst islands of rough on the fairway could provide interesting hazards as well as valuable wildlife habitat. A curving boundary to the rough is more visually pleasing and can improve conditions for wildlife.

Forage harvesters are one of the most popular pieces of mowing equipment for nature conservation as they can both cut and collect vegetation. They combine a flail mower with a large box for cuttings. Cuttings should always be collected to reduce nutrient enrichment and the build-up of thatch. Simple rotary and flail mowers are equally effective but flail machines produce more finely chopped up cuttings, which are less easy to rake-up and collect. Rotary mowers are probably more efficient when equipped with chains rather than blades which require more maintenance. All cuttings should be removed off-site to dump sites in low quality wildlife habitat. The removal of cuttings from fairways, greens and tees is also important for golf management as it helps reduce the build-up of nutrients, which in turn helps to maintain finer grasses requiring less management.

Mowing in slacks needs special consideration. In wet slacks, vehicles need to have low ground pressure tyres. If Creeping Willow is a target species to control, the cut should be made in spring where water table conditions allow. Mowing at this time of year more effectively reduces the vigour of Creeping Willow, than an autumn cut.

The mowing of heathlands can ensure the maintenance of a mosaic of habitat structure, providing niches for different species. The semi-rough is usually more regularly mown thus maintaining it in pioneer and vigorous phases. Firebreaks can provide another opportunity to maintain such habitat. Sandy firebreaks created on south-facing slopes can be very valuable for Sand Lizards. In the rough, however, areas should be identified for less regular cutting to allow building and mature phases to be present with areas cut on, for example, a ten or twenty year rotation. This should ensure that these areas also stay vigorous and free from infestation with the Heather beetle Lochmaea suturalis. In other areas Heather could be allowed to senesce and die back. These areas could subsequently be turf-stripped to initiate the cycle once again. It is advisable to mow in early spring as then the Heather is put under less stress than with an autumn cut. However, if seed is being harvested for restoration projects a late autumn cut is required.

Turf-stripping on dune ridges

Turf-stripping is used by greenkeepers to provide turf for repai r works. Such areas, usually on drier rough ground, create valuable bare ground habitats for wildlife. Turf-striping is usually carried out at a small scale, often with hand tools, although it can be mechanised. Bare ground habitats are valuable in slack s and also on ridges. They provide basking and egg-laying habitats for the Sand Lizard, burrowing habitats for the Natterjack Toad, and rare invertebrates such as the Tiger Beetle Cicindela hybrida, solitary bees and wasps. Bare areas are also important for the survival of annual dune grasses and flowers. With some planning, turf-stripping could be developed on many golf courses to be even more valuable for dune wildlife. Repair works on golf courses should use local turf rather than importing turf which could introduce non-native species.

Dune stabilisation

Where a blowout has become a management problem or works have disturbed sand, it may become necessary to stabilise the area. Techniques are well known and include the planting of Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria, reprofiling, fencing and access control. In this way valuable dune grassland habitat can be created.

Heather restoration

Heathland restoration has been successfully undertaken on a number of golf courses on the Sefton Coast. This has included a project to eradicate a problem with the Heather Beetle which had killed areas of older Heather. At Formby Golf Club, with advice from the Sports Turf Research Institute (Taylor, 1995), the old dead heather was mown short and the ground scarified using a forage harvester. As a result the regeneration of Heather was very successful.

At Hankley Common Golf Club in Surrey, heathland restoration followed the clearance of pine plantations. Different trials were undertaken but the most effective procedure was as follows: felling pines, de-rooting the pine stumps, organic litter stripping followed by spreading of Heather seed and fine brash. Shallow cultivation and rolling helped to set the seed. NPK fertiliser was shown to assist initial Heather regeneratio n. However areas clearfelled of pine and where brashings were removed also showed Heather regeneration, albeit after a longer period of time, but at considerably less cost (Simpson and Wrench 1998). Such works can cause considerable disruption to the landscape. Therefore trial areas were sited away from public areas or behind a line of screening trees, which could be later removed when Heather was re-established. De-rooting of pine stumps was also favoured near public areas to leave a more natural 'finish'. Similar success to restore a Heather-dominated heathland sward was achieved on areas previously dominated by matted acid grassland. The grassland and organic litter was first stripped and subsequent treatment followed that used on areas cleared of pine plantations.


Water management

Water management is a vital issue on links golf courses, particularly those affecting dune slack habitats. Golf clubs take every effort to conserve water by using such techniques as wetting agents, drought-tolerant grass seed mixes and efficient irrigation systems. Links fairways were never intended to be bright green throughout the year!


Wetland habitats are often at a premium on sand dune golf courses. Because of drainage requirements to maintain the course in a playable condition all year round, wetland habitats tend to be restricted to reservoirs, feature ponds and ditches. These features can be managed to improve their conservation value by increasing the area of shallows, lengthening the edge and reducing shading by trees.

Natural slacks on golf courses are usually dry (or drained) and are often incorporated into the design of the course as fairways. However there may also be opportunities to recreate dune slack communities on many golf courses. Particularly appropriate locations would be scrub-invaded and dried-out slacks in the rough and out of play areas. It may also be possible to create slack habitats as part of any reconstruction works such as the creation of new tees. Works in wet areas should be undertaken with a tracked vehicle such as an excavator or bulldozer with little more than the surface turf and roots being scraped off. Enriched spoil should be removed from site or be deep-buried and capped with pure sand. Care should be taken with le vels to ensure that these areas only flood in the winter months to create species-rich and colourful dune slacks, which could also be used as breeding pools by the Natterjacks.

Artificial habitats

Golf courses provide an opportunity to restore Natterjack populations to large areas of their former range, even where drainage and scrub encroachment has denied them natural breeding sites. Small lined pools can be installed in suitable out of play areas. Butyl rubber liners are ideal and long las ting. These pools should be drained in late summer to control invertebrate predators. This can be through a drainage system incorporated into the pool as developed by the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, or by using a pump. They can be left to refill with winter rainfall. If there is a drain, refilling the pool can be left until late spring to deter competitors such as the Common Toad Bufo bufo. A few pieces of wood debris can be scattered in marginal areas to provide emerging toadlets with protection from desiccation and predators. Care should be taken to ensure that water does not wick out of the pond through sandy margins to the surrounding dunes. A concrete liner may help to buffer water acidity on heathland courses.

Woodland management

There can be opportunities to selectively remove trees on golf courses to improve conditions for golf and nature. The removal of trees can open up areas of dune and heathland habitat allowing species to move more freely between areas thus reducing the danger of localised extinctions. It can also open up views which have been gradually lost over the years. Woodland edge habitat can be increased by the selective removal of trees along otherwise straight edges. This could be of particular benefit to species such as bats. Cutting back trees from the edge of slacks can improve their value by re-exposing them to the elements, reducing leaf-fall, raising water levels and generally slowing down the pace of vegetation succession. Around greens and tees, tree removal helps to increase air flow and light levels, thereby improving the quality of the turf.


The extent, distribution and condition of habitats and species needs to be monitored to check whether management objectives are being met.

Fixed-point photography can give valuable information about the condition of the course from a normal perspective. On the Sefton Coast a photographic record of each golf course has been completed through the work of the Sefton Coast Life Project and these have been transferred to a Geographic Information System (GIS). Photographs are taken from each tee w ith a view looking down the fairway. Additional shots are taken of important habitats or areas of concern. A guide to fixed point photography has been given to each club so that the photography can be repeated at appropriate intervals. Aerial photography is also available.

Rare species require more detailed monitoring usually as part of wider coastwide studies co-ordinated by specialists. On the Sefton Coast, for example, the monitoring of the Natterjack population includes data collection concerning adult assembly, spawning and toadlet emergence which is summarised in an annual report. Increasingly, through the species strate gy, golf courses are being identified as potential areas for the re-establishment of the population to its former range.

A coastwide network for monitoring water levels is to be established in 1999 by the Environment Agency, with particular reference to the licensed abstraction of water by golf courses for irrigation. The golf courses are increasingly being asked to demonst rate that their licensed abstractions are sustainable and not detrimental to adjacent wetland features.


Nature conservation needs to become more central to the management of golf courses. On the Sefton Coast, the Life Project has developed several interpretation ideas, including a regular newsletter Linkslines, the use of interpretative boards and guided walks and talks for club members. The process of producing a management plan with its rounds of consultation helps to increase knowledge and understanding within the club of the course's wildlife importance.

Training events for greenstaff should incorporate wildlife identification, ecology, conservation, management techniques, equipment and the value of the management of the rough for golf and nature. Training events give opportunities for golf course consultants, Head Greenkeepers, greenkeepers and members to share their knowledge and experience to the benefit of the conservation of the course.

Golfing management

As part of normal course management, tees, greens and even fairways may occasionally be relocated. On any Site of Special Scientific Interest this would require a consent from English Nature. If such plans do go ahead there may be opportunities to considerably improve duneland habitat. For example, scrub could be cleared, wetlands created and dune and heathland habitats restored.

Pest control is a routine activity on most golf courses. Rabbit control is often necessary, for example, to prevent damage to the turf on greens. Rabbits as grazers, are a valuable component of a duneland ecosystem and should not be controlled if not causing a problem. In particular, Rabbit control should not be by gassing. Burrowing animals such as the Natterjack Toad and Sand Lizard will also succumb to gassing control methods.

The ecological management of golf courses has been promoted through the European Golf Association Ecology Unit's Committed to Green initiative (Stubbs, 1997). This provides a procedure for golf clubs to develop an environmental approach to course management, validated by a quality control certificate. It will be promoted on the Sefton Coast as a follow-on from the Life-Nature golf a nd wildlife partnership.

Produced by David Simpson and John Houston



Ian Kippax and Kevin Gould - Hesketh Golf Club

Brian Kenyon, Derek Turner and Martin Twist - Hillside Golf Club

Peter Rostron and Chris Whittle - Royal Birkdale Golf Club

Bob Hutt, Roy Williams and Mike Mercer - Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club

Keith Wilcox, Austin Cartmell and Derek Postlethwaite - Formby Golf Club

Val Moran and John Bourhill - Formby Ladies Golf Club

Graham Dudley and John Muir - West Lancashire Golf Club

Ian Macmillan - Hankley Common Golf Club

Mickey Dodd - Burnham and Berrow Golf Club

Bob Corns - English Nature Taunton

Bob Taylor - Sports Turf Research Institute.

The support of the EC Life-Nature Fund is acknowledged in the preparation of this article.


Cooke, A.S. (1991), 'The Habitat of Sand Lizards Lacerta agilis L. on the Sefton Coast' in (eds.) Atkinson, D., and Houston, J., The Sand Dunes of the Sefton Coast, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.

Foster, H. (1997), Links along the Line, Ainsdale and Birkdale Historical Association, Birkdale.

Stubbs, D. (1997), The Committed To Green Handbook for Golf Courses, European Golf Association Ecology Unit.

Simpson, D. and Wrench, D. (1998), Report of site visits to Burnham and Berrow Golf Course and SW Surrey Heathlands, 10-12 June 1998, Unpublished report Life Project, Sefton Council, Southport.

Taylor, R.S. (1995), A Practical Guide to Ecological Management of the Golf Course, The British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association and The Sports Turf Research Institute, Bingley.