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Nature at the Golf Club


by Stephen Thompson


Golf courses have had a reputation in the past and to some extent still do of being a place that is no good for wildlife, barren desserts, and just a load of grass but that is most definitely not the case.
When I first started at John o Gaunt way back in 1990 we used to cut a lot more grass, from 1 side of the course to the other but after a while it became apparent that we didn’t have to cut everything, 1 obvious advantage is less wear on machines, less man hrs spent cutting meaning greenkeepers could get on with other jobs. To the wildlife of John o’ Gaunt It was an absolute godsend.

There was already a decent amount of wildlife at the golf club with various birds and mammals, but improvements can always be made and the habitat at John o Gaunt has gone from strength to strength over the years. Things do not happen quickly though,and it takes time but gradually with the improvements that we have made here both the golf courses are proving to offer a really diverse range of species and we are discovering more all the time. Just recently in some long rough on the Carthagena course a Wasp Spider was discovered, a relatively recent addition to the UK, it has been spreading across southern England and is a welcome addition to further enhance the local biodiversity.


The first project I became involved in at the club was the Nestbox project. It started way back in 1996 when we used to have Barn owl around on a regular basis. It used to Roost in the room of an old building and use a tree on the practice area. But plans were in place to make changes to the practice area and renovate the building into what is now the Course Managers office and greenkeepers mess room. Something had to be done to help the Barn Owl to provide an alternative site to nest or roost. Help and advice were sought from the Hawk & Owl Trust and they supplied and installed an A-frame type box for the Owl. This was just the beginning, The Nestbox Project was born!

The box was used by Barn Owls for the first 2 years but not that successfully, Kestrels used it, Stock Doves and now Jackdaws. Unfortunately, the Barn Owl seemed to disappear from John o Gaunt for several years. Then in the mid 2000’s there was the odd sighting of one on the Carthagena course, so it was decided to put another A-frame box up on that course. It wasn’t really used until 2012 when we actually had a pair nest on both sides, producing 5 chicks, unfortunately none survived, and it was another few years before we achieved success. In 2016 a pair nested on Carthagena course and had 4 young, all of which fledged successfully.

The 2nd box to go up was a Kestrel box on the John O Gaunt course in 1998, It wasn’t used for the first 2 years but Kestrels soon moved in once they realised the benefits of being a member at John o Gaunt and it is used most years usually with 2-4 chicks. Stock Doves and Jackdaws have used it too. With the success of this box we erected one on the Carthagena course in 2009 but it was a further 7 years before it was used when Kestrels nested and successfully raised 2 young.
In 2017 and 2018 we had a pair of Kestrels nest on both sides raising 7 young in total and in 2019 only the Carthagena box was used but the Kestrels laid 5 eggs and raised 5 chicks which all fledged making it the best ever success of a pair of Kestrels at the club.
With a different cutting regime at the club, providing more rough areas on both courses we have provided an ideal habitat for small mammals like voles therefore providing an ample food source for Owls and Kestrels.

The nestbox project really took off though in 2000 when it was thought a good idea to have a trial with a few small boxes for birds like Blue and Great Tits and in March some were placed around the car park. We wanted to put more around the golf courses but didn’t know how many we could put up. We sought advice from a local expert and after a walk round both courses it was suggested we get around 70-80 boxes, well I just fell about laughing, we’ll never get that many!
1E4E77DC-D45D-4659-9141-8EB0566EC4B4In the winter of 2000/2001 we put up 16 boxes on John o Gaunt course which the birds readily took to, in winter 2001/2002 we put up a further 34 boxes covering both courses gradually increasing over the years to its present number of 125. But they were not all small boxes for Blue & Great Tits. Some larger boxes, taken from a BTO Stock Dove design were placed on both courses. These boxes are used by a wide variety of species including Grey Squirrel, Jackdaw, Stock Dove and Tawny Owl. A box on the Carthagena course has had a pair of Tawnies nest in it 2 years in a row raising 2 chicks each time. Other boxes include boxes for Woodpeckers, Robins, Spotted Flycatchers, Bats and 3 of an Upright design from BTO especially for Tawny Owls. The Big Owl Boxes are attached to the trees by use of Plastic (chainsaw friendly) nut and bolts and the smaller boxes either by nails or screws but alternatives to nails are being looked at whenever we need to replace boxes in the future. The small open front style boxes for Robins are difficult to get birds to nest in successfully as they are more open to predation from Stoats, Weasels and Grey Squirrels.


When placing boxes around the course you get to a point after a few years where you know you have enough. Around 70-80% of boxes are used each year which is a very high percentage. The number of chicks in the boxes varies each year depending on a whole host of different factors. With the boxes now at maximum numbers, we usually get around 400 chicks a year. 2012 was a very wet year and the birds really suffered in the wet weather as their main food source (small caterpillars) were washed off the trees and numbers dropped by almost 50%. It took a few years to recover but numbers are now back to more normal levels. 2019 was a record-breaking year seeing a total of 512 chicks from the nest boxes.

I never imagined for 1 min exactly how successful this project would be and how many birds it would produce when we first started it in 1996 and with all the other habitat management going on around the courses John o Gaunt is fast becoming The Place to be for all Wildlife.

Grass is the obvious place to start when looking at making ecological improvements. Away from the greens tees and fairways there is the rough some of which is cut but you do not need to cut it all. At John o’ Gaunt we started leaving 1 or 2 areas that were perhaps classed as out of play just to see what happens of if anyone complained! Over the years we introduced more areas of this long rough but this long rough still required management, usually cut late summer/early Autumn and sometimes again in early spring and after a few years we began to notice a difference. Without adding any seed wildflowers were beginning to appear naturally providing a nectar source for pollinating insects, on John o Gaunt the long rough seemed to grow thicker but on both sides all the long rough provided the ideal habitat for small mammals which provide food for Owls & Kestrels. Yellow Necked Mouse was a recent addition to the site in the last few years making 6 small mammals in total.

In 2011 the club became involved in Operation Pollinator, a scheme designed to help the plight of the Bumble Bee and other pollinating insects by creating wildflower areas on the golf course. An area was chosen that was out of play but between 2 fairways and close to the brook. It was an area that was quite dry and not much grass growing. The area was prepared in October 2011 with the use of an Amazon scarifying machine and scarified to around 50-60% bare soil, wildflower seed was then sown by hand over the whole area and left to see what happened. Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and what a difference, from bare soil to a fully-fledged wildflower meadow, all 7 species of flower in the mix had germinated and it was a mass of colour and full of insects. 2012 was a very wet year and the amount of rain we had had a big impact on the germination of the wildflower seed. A survey was conducted in the operation pollinator area and 5 species of Bumble Bee were found so as the advert says, it was doing exactly what it said on the tin! Butterflies moths, Dragonflies and other insects such as Crickets and Grasshoppers have been found.


Given the initial success of this area, other wildflower areas have been put in place trying different methods of preparing the areas and different seed mixes. One method we tried was to cut and collect the Operation pollinator area and spread the clippings on another area that had been scarified, the following year not much appeared but several years later one area in particular isnow a fantastic wildflower meadow and is full of insects. It took time for a few flowers appearing each year but it was worth the wait. We have started to add Yellow Rattle to some areas to help combat the advance of the thicker courser grasses and to encourage the wildflowers without the need to use chemicals. This has worked really well.


With all the wildflowers areas and long rough on the course now, Insect activity has increased dramatically. Buff tailed Bumble Bee, Red tailed Bumble Bee , Roesel’s Bush Cricket, Oak Bush Cricket and Hornet to name just a few.

1FB42DE3-EA76-4053-A258-79BE084599A2One of the most familiar insects perhaps associated with flowers is the Butterfly and we have them here at John o Gaunt in abundance with a range of different species including the rather striking black and white colours of the Marbled White and 2 slightly less common, the Purple & White Letter Hairstreaks. But the best of show surely must go to the Purple Emperor only seen for the first time at the club in July 2019 and quite a surprise find. A rather large Butterfly, the male is quite unmistakable with its glossy purple colour on the front wings. This is a butterfly that is slowly starting to spread across the region and become more common. There are now 25 species of butterfly recorded at the club.


One insect that perhaps people don’t think about that much is the Moth. They are often thought of as little brown annoying flying things that get in the house but with 2,500 species in the UK there is a huge variety, small, large, brown and really colourful like the Large Elephant Hawk Moth: At John o’ Gaunt we have recorded over 370 species, just a small percentage of what’s out there with the Hawk Moths perhaps being the most spectacularly.

The best Moth we have here is the White Spotted Pinion, it feeds exclusively on elm and is only found in Cambs, Beds, Essex and a few other areas where there is ample supply of Elm. It is found on the edge of the Carthagena course along the Bridlepath and as a result of this rarity the whole stretch of the Bridlepath is now an official county wildlife sight to help protect this important habitat for the future.


With lots of Butterflies and Moths around there will be lots of Caterpillars too providing an ample food source for birds like Blue Tits and Great Tits. Their numbers have been steadily increasing over the years with the increasing food supply and the availability of a safe secure home in the form of nestboxes. Worms are another vital food source for a wide variety of birds, Blackbirds, Robins, Crows, the occasional Oystercatcher and even Kestrels have been seen pecking for worms. There is a huge diversity of food available for birds around the course including fish in the brook for Kingfisher, berries on Rowan trees for Thrushes & Waxwings in the winter months and much more. Around 100 species of birds have been recorded on the courses. We have even managed to attract the Nightjar, (a rare breeding bird in the UK associated with heathland type areas as might be found in Norfolk). One was seen on Carthagena in August 2017 when a group of people were out Moth Trapping one night. There have been some odd single sightings of birds over the years, Whimbrel, Curlew, Reed Warbler to name just a few. You never know what might turn up!

I already mentioned small mammals as a food source for birds like the Barn Owl but there are a lot of other much larger mammals on the course. With the increasing number of birds and small mammals every year, it provides a likely food source for mammals like the Stoat & Weasel being able to get into a nestbox for a ready-made snack. As well as birds eating worms, they are the main food source for Badgers, and we have a good size sett on the course. In total 22 species of mammal have been recorded at the club.

To help keep the golf course looking green requires water and apart from using mains water we have a licence to extract water from the brook that runs through the course. The brook is yet another small ecosystem on the course and is full of life, Ducks and Moorhens nest every year, there are lots of fish and that attracts birds like the Kingfisher and Grey Heron. With a healthy range of species in the brook we have even managed to attract the Otter which comes visiting now and again. The brook that runs through John o Gaunt was at one time the best place in the whole county for the rare and elusive Water Vole but Mink paid a visit one day and now the Water Voles have all gone, It is hoped that they will return naturally one day but a re-introduction scheme could be considered sometime in the future. When Water Voles were present then the brook had to be managed appropriately to protect this fragile habitat.


The most recent large project on the golf course was the construction of a new pond, initially built as part of a flood alleviation plan on a problem par 3 hole It is fast becoming the latest amazing habitat for wildlife. Now in its 2nd year the pond is really developing, pond weed has moved in and in Hot weather it is an absolute Dragonfly paradise and along with the brook 4 new species of Dragonfly have been recorded in the last 2 years making 16 in total. Black tailed Skimmer seems to favour the pond (1st seen in 2018) their numbers increased slightly this year. Also new for 2019 was the Small red-eyed Damselfly when lots of them were seen all over the weed in the pond. A bit like London or is New York that is described as the city that never sleeps? The pond is still an active place for wildlife at night. In the warm/hot summer weather there are lots of insects & bugs all over the pond and this provides an abundant food source for Bats. After several years of not recording Daubenton’s Bat on the course, in 2018 while on a Bat walk at least 6 were seen flying over the pond, a magnificent sight and a welcome return. In total 8 species of Bat have been recorded at the club including Brown long eared and the rare Barbastelle.


We are always trying to improve things for wildlife and improve the local diversity at John o’ gaunt. With so many trees on both courses there is a certain amount of woodland management that is required, thinning out some areas to encourage trees to grow better and let a bit more light in, which hopefully encourages more plants to grow on the woodland floor, one area in particular was overgrown with elder and looked a bit messy, a lot of the elder was cleared out and trees trimmed but none taken out. Log piles were created to provide homes and shelter for insects and small mammals. The trees are hopefully now able to grow more healthily, and the area is now a vital new habitat for some of our wildlife.


People often want things to happen really quickly when it comes to the environment and creating habitats for wildlife but if your prepared to wait a little while your patience will be rewarded. If you put in the work to create the habitat then the wildlife will move in.


©️ Stephen Thompson 2019

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