Managing a golf club’s secret asset

Trees and woodland are key landscape and strategic features of many golf courses, yet they often remain largely unmanaged from one decade to another. This lack of proactive management inevitably leads to problems: crowded and un-thinned plantings will eventually become weak and unstable while woodlands and plantings which are even-aged lack stability and structural diversity. This can impact negatively on both the appearance of the course, and its playability.
Fortunately, some clubs do recognise the importance of the surrounding woodland and take a more proactive approach to tree management. One such organisation is Wellingborough Golf Club, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2018.  A private members' club situated at the 18th century Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, the championship golf course is set in 160 acres of parkland and regularly hosts a number of premier PGA and county events.  It also provides a backdrop and setting for the Grade 2- listed hall. The way that the club has tackled woodland management highlights the difference that a proactive approach can make.

Creating a strategic plan
The trees on this parkland course have always been a key feature of its appeal. Recognising this, the club established an ex-office Tree Committee two decades ago, with the remit of taking a strategic approach to tree management as a resource to be secured for the future.
As part of this strategy, the club has worked with a team from environmental planning consultancy Lockhart Garratt to develop a long-term plan for its woodland and parkland trees, all of which are protected by Tree Preservation Orders.  The plan has helped to guide a programme of ongoing operational work that has included thinning, felling, tree surgery and replacement planting.

The benefits of surgery
Within the body of the course, a phased programme of tree surgery has helped to restore the surrounding trees to a good stable and healthy condition.  The plan also highlighted the need to diversify the age class and structure of the trees, with particular importance placed on the parkland fringe that frames the course and provides the site’s backdrop. Thinning and some limited felling within the woodland belts, both in the surrounding belts and within the structure of the course helped to achieve this, while protecting some key assets such as the listed parkland wall.
In conjunction with the felling, the club planted new and replacement ‘drifts’ of trees, both within and adjacent to the woodland fringe, which surrounds the course and within the course layout. These plantations have been well maintained, becoming attractive landscape features and adding greater variety to the course’s internal landscape and backdrop.  They now also provide valuable screening and continuity of structure as some of the critical boundary woodlands have started to succumb to disease and old age.

Dealing with ash dieback
Having dropped out of the media spotlight, the true future impact of ash dieback is only now really coming to light. 
Ash trees form an important part of the course woodlands, so when dieback was identified at the course in 2016, it was clear that the club needed to take a proactive approach to tackle the issue, working with their environmental planning consultancy to create a report with recommendations for management. This included a thinning operation, focusing on the removal of ash, leaving the most robust specimens and promoting the development of all other remaining trees such as oak, lime, sweet chestnut, yew and sycamore.
Several small groups of ash were felled and earmarked for re-planting with selection based on the concentration of ash trees as well as avoiding large breaks in the canopy or tree line.  These will be re-planted over the next two seasons to provide a new generation of trees, increased structural and species diversity, and to strengthen the integrity of the tree-scape that is such an integral part of the course – and of the game itself.
Maintaining woodlands on and around a golf course is a long-term commitment, but it is certainly a worthwhile investment environmentally, aesthetically and commercially. The action taken by Wellingborough is a great example of the sort of strategic planning and action that many golf clubs need to take if they are to ensure that their course looks and plays well – and that this great resource can be protected for generations to come.
Ash dieback
First confirmed in Britain in 2012, ash dieback, previously known as 'Chalara', is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Ash trees across much of England are affected by ash dieback, and it is expected that the vast majority of ash trees will die from the disease in the coming years.
Symptoms include leaf loss, crown dieback and bark lesions, which directly result in tree decline and death. Growing trees may be weakened to the point where they more readily succumb to secondary pests or pathogens, e.g. Armillaria fungi (honey fungus).
Timescales on rates of decline vary; mortality has been observed in as little as two growing seasons. As an ash tree declines, it appears to rapidly lose timber strength and integrity and is prone to structural failure, making the management of infected trees costly and hazardous.
However, some ash trees appear to be able to tolerate or resist infection, and tree health scientists are studying the genetic factors, which make this possible so that tolerant ash trees can be bred for the future.

About the author
John Lockhart is Chairman of Lockhart Garratt environmental planning and forestry consultancy (www.lockhart-garratt.co.uk).    John specialises in a range of areas including strategic woodland management, environmental planning and development and green infrastructure.

John can be contacted on 01536 408840 or by emailing john.lockhart@lgluk.com.