The Environment, our environment, that thin layer that surrounds our globe known as the biosphere where all known life exists. We have been part of that environment for many thousands of years and, as we all know, that is only the blinking of an eye in Earth's long history.
I'm sure most of us have heard the eulogy that "if the sum total of time here on Earth since its birth was condensed into one hour, that humans would have only appeared here in the last second." Nonetheless, in a fraction of that time, we have altered our environment so immensely that leaders of the global community decided it was high time to act.
It was during 1992, when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development met at Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Around the world this was known as the "Rio Earth Summit" where one hundred and ten world leaders, representatives from one hundred and fifty three countries and over two thousand five hundred non-governmental organisations united with a common cause; a plan for "sustainable development".
Now, twenty-one years later, we are seeing the concept of sustainability beginning to become established within our profession, with many greenkeepers and course managers now embracing the challenge of becoming more so.
However, how did we get to this present state of the environment? And does the golf industry have a part to play in the environment's recovery?
It is, without doubt, that man (and woman) has had an undeniable impact upon the world around us and has radically altered the environment for his own use. The felling of the original wild wood that once covered the whole of the British Isles is one example where land was cleared of woodland for agriculture and a source of timber to sustain the swelling population. In fact, now there is no part of our islands that have not been modified to suit our needs.
However, staying with population, our population is undergoing an explosive growth as we have learned to utilise agriculture, domestication, civilisation and, more recently, industrialisation. Great medical advances, improved health care, greater food availability are all examples of this trend becoming more sophisticated, and current estimations of the world's human population reveal that there are 7.1 billion of us inhabiting this planet.
Whilst this may be just another statistic, it only really means anything if it is put into some kind of context; with only one million people inhabiting the Earth by the end of the last ice age, it took us a further 10,000 years to reach the one billion mark. This milestone was only reached during the nineteenth century and the population has since continued to grow exponentially with, incredibly, a one billion increase in the last decade alone.
Average population growth projections now predict the world's current population is doubling every forty or so years, and there will be between eight or nine billion humans on the planet by 2020. This growth can only have more of a negative impact upon our environment and surely cannot be sustainable.
Genuine concerns about our rising population were first voiced over 200 years ago by an English clergyman, Thomas Malthus, who made the dire prediction that the Earth could not indefinitely support an ever-increasing human population and said that "the planet would check population growth through famine if humans didn't check themselves".
This train of thought lends itself well to a well-known and widely-accepted concept of ecology known as "carrying capacity". This involves a very basic idea and describes that maximum carrying capacity is reached when a population of a species gets to a point where the environment can no longer support them. In the natural world, animals and plants always find a balance. This is exemplified by birds that hold small territories during the breeding season that contain just enough resources to sustain them and their offspring. This keeps the population in check and prevents the population from suffering the consequences of overburdening their environment.
In our case, at the present state anyway, we will continue to grow in number until our carrying capacity is reached, which lies at about ten billion according to a UN report. How long will it take us to reach that figure? I'll let you do the maths!
An increase of human population and resource consumption will inevitably lead to further impacts upon the environment, albeit most of them will be negative. One such negative impact that is also widely known is the change in our climate or, to be more to the point, the unprecedented rise in global temperatures over the last century. This is generally accepted to be due to excess burning of fossil fuels and, since the 1860s, average temperatures have risen 0.5OC and, as a result, sea levels have risen by between four and ten inches (both of these figures are highly significant).
The last decades of the twentieth century were the hottest on record, and data from ice-cores indicate we are now living in the warmest century for six-hundred years, with current projections estimating a rise in temperature of 4.2OC, and a rise in sea level of twenty-six inches within the century.
The affects of these rising temperatures can be seen here in the UK by looking at some of the best indicators of our environment - and what better indicators are there than yes, you've guessed it, birds. They rapidly react to any changes in their environment, and populations have been closely monitored here for over a century. However, in recent years, there have been a few species normally to be found in the warmer Mediterranean climes that are starting to colonise our shores. One example that deserves mention is of a trio of heron species that have adapted and exploited the warmer temperatures by moving in. These are Little Egret, Great Egret and Little Bittern, all of these normally seen when I am on holiday in Mallorca or some other Mediterranean country.
First to move in was the Little Egret, which first settled on the south coast some fifteen years ago, and has gradually spread northward reaching as far as Lancashire at the present time. The Great Egret and Little Bittern followed, first nesting here in 2012 and 2013 respectively. 2013 also witnessed a remarkable invasion of another Mediterranean species - the Glossy Ibis. This species is predicted to follow suit and colonise within the near future, and last year's invasion may be just the precursor to that happening. Four of these birds also graced Old Links Golf Course a few weeks ago and lingered long enough for the local press and television to cover the story.
Conversely, and at the time of writing, a Snowy Owl - normally to be found within the Arctic Circle - has been reported at Felixstowe Golf Club, demonstrating the possibility that extreme weather can also displace more northerly species.
The need of land to provide food for an ever increasing human population has also put tremendous strain on the rural landscape, especially here in the UK. This is another example of a major impact upon our environment and modern agriculture has been cited as being largely to blame.
Traditional farming practices during the 19th Century had a relatively minimal impact right up until the 1940s when a major technical revolution within agriculture altered the rural landscape dramatically. The spread of mechanisation is one of the main factors that contributed to this revolution and, as a result, the land has been intensively farmed for over half a century.
Agricultural intensification has many environmental implications and there is no doubt that modern farming practices conducted during the post-war period have transformed the rural environment.
The first change that aroused concern was the appearance of large industrialised farm buildings in the 1950s. The loss of important habitats such as moorland, heathland, thousands of miles of hedgerows and the drainage of wetlands all followed, contributing to this transformation of the countryside.
The drastic decline of our precious habitats was only acted upon in 1984 when the Nature Conservancy Council published the results of a survey that revealed that our landscape had changed radically as modern farming methods changed.
The report documented that the nation had lost 95% of its lowland herb-rich grassland, 80% of its chalk and limestone grassland, 60% of its lowland heaths, 45% of its limestone pavements, 50% of its ancient woodland, 50% of its lowland fells and marshes, over 60% of its lowland raised bogs, and a third of all upland grassland, heaths and mires.
Movements were eventually made to help halt the damage being done to the rural environment and, during 1984, the Common Agricultural Policy was finally modified to alleviate the effect. The creation of environmentally sensitive areas and agri-environmental schemes within these areas were tools for tackling such problems. Some agri-environmental schemes, known as set-aside, are still available to farmers today and, together with other conservation measures in other sectors of the economy, habitat destruction has somewhat slowed. However, pressures from new housing and development continue to destroy valuable habitats and their statistics continue to fall up to this day!
Here, I have highlighted the valuable habitat lowland heathland, in particular, as it is readily found on many golf courses throughout the country, and many greenkeepers actively take measures to conserve it.
Lowland heathland is now a national priority for nature conservation as it is a rare and threatened habitat. About 20% of the global extent of this habitat occurs in the UK which makes it an internationally important habitat. In England, only 16% of the lowland heathland present in 1800 now remains, whilst 56% of the lowland heath present before 1940 has now been destroyed.
It has been lost due to a number of factors, not just agricultural improvement, and includes forestry plantations, development, mineral extraction, over-grazing, natural vegetative succession to woodland and encroachment of invasive species such as rhododendron and bracken.
Habitat fragmentation also makes each smaller portion of heath more vulnerable to damage and, as well as being important for plants, heathland is important for a wide variety of insects, small mammals and birds.
The recently published State of Nature Report for 2012 highlights the effects of this habitat loss and reveals a depressing state of affairs regarding our natural heritage. It shows that, since agricultural intensification, a staggering 60% of all our wildlife is now in decline, with 34% showing a strong decline. Some of these species are considered to be "critically endangered" and have an extremely high risk of becoming extinct within the UK.
The report also concludes that 72% of the UK's butterfly species had decreased over the previous ten years, that the UK has lost in the region of 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s, that, in sixteen counties, one plant species became extinct every other year and highlighted the decline of hedgehogs and the ongoing loss of red squirrels.
However, it is not all bad news as some species have stabilised after declines during the second half of the 20th Century. There is even evidence that some species are starting to recover due to conservation measures practised today, although there is some way to go before they return to their earlier levels.
Golf and the environment go hand in hand; after all, each course is a large portion of land that integrates the game into local physical environment.
With c3,000 existing golf courses within the UK, these portions of land add up to quite a sizeable chunk of our environment. Golf courses average between fifty and sixty hectares in size, meaning that, in total, they occupy about 0.6% of the land area of Britain. This is quite significant as it is more than the total occupied by RSPB reserves, country parks and local nature reserves.
Every golf course consists of highly maintained turf, but it is the non-playing areas that are of interest here as they represent a significant amount of land that can be used for nature conservation purposes. These areas generally represent between 25% and 40% of the total area of the course and, through good environmental stewardship, can be managed to offset the damage done to our environment through habitat destruction.
This is why I believe that golf is a unique industry whereby we manage the countryside, so to speak, and enhance the habitats within it to provide the best possible golfing experience. No other industry, except for maybe the management of nature reserves, needs to work to preserve the habitats we have; in fact, other industries are normally involved with its destruction.
The work greenkeepers now do for nature is, therefore, extremely important and sustainability is becoming more comprehensively integrated into all golf course operations, twenty-one years after the Rio Earth Summit.
Images ©Antony Wainwright
1. Antony Wainwright
2. The golf industry plays an important role in preserving large portions of the environment as shown by this picture of Turton Golf Club
3. Sustainability is becoming more comprehensively integrated into all golf course operations. Here strips of rough are being removed to promote heather regeneration in an out-of-play area which will enhance the habitat and contribute to sustainability
4. These Glossy Ibis graced Old Links Golf Course during September 2013. Normally to be found in the Mediterranean, these birds are predicted to colonise the UK due to the warming climate
5. The affects of climate change are clear at Amendoeira GC in Portugal during spring 2012, after a winter without rain
6.This bunker at Thorpeness GC clearly shows how local native flora can be used to enhance the playing experience whilst preserving disappearing habitats
7. Once a common sight across much of the UK, this Small Copper is now in steep decline. Overall, 72% of the UK's butterfly species have decreased in the last decade