Added on October 29th, 2016 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Greenkeeping

What is happening to the use of pesticides on golf courses?

 

FineGolf argues for a balanced approach to reduction in pesticides.

 

In 2013 FineGolf was invited to a conference run by Professor Alan Gange of Royal Holloway, University of London, with companies like Symbio, the environmental biotechnology company in attendance. The conference was attempting to raise funds for research into soil biology for conservationist/sustainable reasons that focussed on reduction in use of pesticides, fertiliser and water in golf course maintenance.

The late, great, Nick Park

The late, great, Nick Park

FineGolf concluded in our conference report  that the best way forward, that was supported by the late, great, Nick Park (a member of The R&A’s course committee for twenty-five years) was to concentrate on the tracking and publicising of  ‘in vivo’ results of change from weed grasses to fine grasses at golf courses across as broad a geographical spread as possible, rather than focusing on laboratory ‘in vitro’ work, whether this be at Royal Holloway or at STRI Bingley.

Now, a Professor John Moverley attended this conference and invited those interested to roll their efforts into the Amenity Forum (AF) to which he had been appointed chairman in 2009.

To catch-up on progress FineGolf attended the AF’s recent annual conference, sponsored by 20 companies and organisations and run by the likeable, energetic Prof Moverley.  AF seem to be doing a necessary job in promulgating the correct use of pesticides (which are not all bad) but as you might have expected FineGolf has some concerns.

AF is a voluntary amenity industry initiative (wider than golf) to essentially promote best practice in the use of pesticides for weed, pest and disease control. This area within golf has been given increased urgency by certain EU directives against the use of some fungicides (a type of pesticide that helps control disease that predominantly attacks weed grass – Poa annua) and there is reduced availablity in Denmark with Holland following suit. (See greenkeeper Ian Tomlinson’s 2010 FineGolf Report  from Denmark).

chafer grub damage

Damage by birds looking for chafer grubs

The UK government has now banned some pesticides that had been used to stop chafer grubs, worm casting and leatherjackets spoiling our golf courses, thereby reliance falling on the encouragement of the use of more natural means of control that may not be so effective.

Golf in England is often seen as a toffs’ sport by some in parts of the media and today has largely been dropped from BBC terrestial coverage. This has left the sport open to ‘Watermelon’ (politically green on the outside and socialist red in the middle) motivated political attack via a ‘green environmentalist’ activist approach and so a defence needs to be built.

FineGolf would prefer to see a balanced approach to this defence, of both promotion of ‘natural greenkeeping’ and ‘appropriate’ use of pesticides.

Delegates at Amenity Forum conference

Delegates at Amenity Forum conference

At the AF conference not once during the day (despite the presence of  one of BIGGA’s leaders, the greenkeepers’ organisation, who made a centre-piece speech) was any mention made of the need to create healthy rootzones that promote natural perrenial fine grass growth on golf courses. In particular, no mention was made that the best way of reducing the need for inputs of pesticides, fertilisers and water to golf courses is the promotion of fine grasses rather than weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua) even if this is easier to accomplish on well draining land like linksland, heathland or some downland and moorlands, than on lush farmland/parkland.

An emphasis on standing proud on the subject of the correct use of pesticides, not hiding away and feeling guilty about their use, seemed to be the key conference message.  FineGolf asks “Has the word ‘sustainablity’ in this context been hijacked by the fertiliser and pesticides chemical industry?”  If so do not be surprised if there is increased Watermelon political pressure to ban more pesticides and the problems that will bring in maintaining good golf surfaces.

The good news is that the golf industry since around the millennium has seen some sense and recognised the folly of the 1980/90s golf boom based on the creation of bulldozered new ‘target-golf’ courses on lush farmland that typically used on average some 300 units of nitrogen. Nowadays, this average has been reduced to 80/120 units and perhaps going lower, (fine grassed ‘running-golf’ courses are certainly lower).

Today, major advances are being made on two fronts:

  • in design terms, with the creation of more strategic, running-golf in contrast to penal, target-style golf  (Ryder and Solheim Cup venues sadly still being an exception – while encouragingly the European Tour is talking about creating a ‘Links Tour’ of Scottish, Irish and The Open Championships which are all played now on ‘running-golf ‘ courses)
  • in playability terms, where most courses are now striving for turf firmness, achieved most sustainably with fine grasses.
John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo, jim arthur,

Jim Arthur’s Bible of natural greenkeeping

We see maintenance companies are now prepared to invest in research that is bringing forward more natural products that fit with a Jim Arthur ‘high aeration, low input’ austere greenkeeping approach. See pages 159 to 176 on golf turf disease, in Jim Arthur’s bible of greenkeeping,’ Practical Greenkeeping.’

The more efficient use of pesticides should be encouraged but a lot more time and resource should be spent on creating healthy growing conditions of unstressed fine grasses where pesticide use can continue to be reduced.

FineGolf is pleased that its 200 finest GB&I running-golf courses, admittedly usually sited on well-draining land, are increasingly making the change back to go down the ‘fine grasses route’.

Indeed, on fine grassed courses, such as Muirfield for example, fungicides have not been used for many years.

On a subsidiary environmental subject, with a representative of the government’s Health and Safety Executive speaking at the conference it might have been thought that some comment on the effect of Brexit would have been made. The green activist movement seem to be terrified that following Brexit their well lobbied environmentalist EU laws will come under national control and maybe seen in some fields (lack of affordable and secure Energy and GM crops some say are two possible examples) as not in Britain’s interests. The only comment made was that there was no comment!