Golf Courses and the Sefton Coast
The Sefton Coast, stretching for around 20km between Crosby and Southport, is the largest sand dune system in England. The site is of special interest for intertidal mud and sandflats, embryonic shifting dunes, mobile dunes, dune slacks, fixed dunes, dune grassland and dune heath. Rare species such as natterjack toad, sand lizard, great crested newt and petalwort are also found here. It is also of special interest for its populations of internationally important breeding and over-wintering waterfowl. Because of this, the Sefton Coast is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a Special Protection Area and a RAMSAR wetland site.
For over a century, golf courses have been a familiar feature of the Sefton Coast landscape. With over 3,000 golf courses in the UK covering around 126,000 ha of greenspace, and over 100 courses in England designated as SSSIs, they can help make a significant contribution to nature conservation.
In an increasingly urban area, here on the Sefton Coast, golf courses have protected large areas of dunes from potentially being built on, playing an important role in helping to reduce the dune system from being broken down into isolated fragments. Although the golf courses have modified the natural dunescape, the managed playing areas form only a small part, leaving much larger, less intensively managed areas as homes for wildlife.
Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, is responsible for protecting SSSIs in England. Natural England works closely with the Sefton Coast golf courses via a dedicated local Coastal Lead Adviser, building partnerships for nature’s recovery, and working together to restore and enhance our dune system.
Southport & Ainsdale Golf Course, located on the Sefton Coast SSSI and SAC, is protected for its mosaic of dune heath and dune grassland features. It is also protected for grey hair-grass, the only site on the Sefton Coast where this rare plant can be found. The golf course recently achieved ‘favourable condition’, indicating that the features of the SSSI are in a healthy state and being looked after by appropriate management. More information on this can be found on Natural England’s Designated Site’s View
Managing for nature conservation on golf courses takes many forms and can need consent from Natural England.
Grazing is not usually an option for most golf courses, so mowing is an essential management tool for looking after open dune grasslands. Adjusting the timing of cutting allows flowers to set seed and mowing some areas less frequently provides great benefits to insects and other invertebrates. Grass cuttings act as a fertiliser so removing them helps maintain the low nutrient conditions needed by dune grasses and flowers.
Dune heath is one of the rarest habitats in the UK. Here on the Sefton Coast much of it is found on our golf courses. Mowing the heathland to different heights and varying the mowing frequency gives the heather a varied age structure from young pioneer heather plants to more mature phases of heather. In other areas, heather is allowed to die back naturally. Controlling scrub is also key to maintaining the open dune heath habitat.
Scrub is a natural part of the dune system, but it can quickly spread and outcompete dune plants and often comprises introduced or invasive species. Controlling its spread helps to conserve and improve open dune habitats for species such as sand lizard and natterjack toad, with winter generally being the best time to undertake this work.
Although natural dune slacks are infrequently found on Sefton Coast golf courses, with most water features being for storage, ponds or ditches, there are several well managed examples demonstrating a wide range of dune slack plants, including rarities. There are often opportunities to recreate dune slack communities in areas which have dried out through scrub invasion or as part of any site fabric restructuring works such as alterations to tees, pathways, greens and fairways.
Opportunities to create the valuable bare ground habitat that many of our rare and specialist dune species need can be incorporated into small-scale turf stripping used to provide turf for repair work. This includes providing suitable space for natterjack toads to burrow, sand lizards to bask and lay their eggs, northern dune tiger beetles to live and hunt and annual dune grasses and flowers to seed into.