Rare Orchids Guarded at U.K. Golf Tournament

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
July 17, 2003
Marshals at Royal St George's in southern England will have their work
cut out this week. As well as keeping an eye on crowds coming to see the
world's top golfers compete for the Open golf championship, they must
protect one of the U.K.'s rarest plants.

Listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's Red Data Book, over 90 percent of Britain's lizard orchids live at Royal St George's Golf Club, near Sandwich, in Kent. The country's biggest and most spectacular native orchid, it features in a hole-by-hole wildlife guide to this year's Open.

Produced for some 150,000 visitors expected at the four-day event, the booklet highlights the club's importance as a haven for many threatened plants and animals.

These include nine types of orchid, a parasitic flower down to just a few sites nationally, and a moth found only in the Sandwich area. And while Tiger Woods searches for "birdies" and "eagles" to boost his title challenge, spectators should also watch for hen harriers, skylarks, and short-eared owls.

Such species thrive here thanks to the sand-dune grasslands that define Royal St George's as a traditional coastal "links" course. Its species-rich habitat is considered internationally important, and has survived beside the championship course for well over a century.

But with this week's Open threatening to disturb the club's most celebrated resident, marshals are to guard the main lizard orchid hotspots. Some areas will also be roped off, based on maps drawn up by Kent Wildlife Trust.

Peter Forrest, the trust's Sandwich-area warden, said: "Lizard orchid numbers vary from year to year. The most ever recorded was nearly 5,000, and the lowest 300. Usually they average between 1,500 to 3,000, representing over 90 percent of the U.K.'s total population.

"There is potential for conflict. There may be some collateral damage, with the odd lizard orchid getting trodden on or hit by a ball, but the last time the championship was held here, in 1993, the wildlife suffered no lasting harm."

Flower Marshals

"There will be large numbers of marshals on duty, making sure people stay off the most sensitive areas," Forrest said. "They shouldn't have too many problems as golf crowds are generally well behaved."

In fact, botanists suspect visitors to Royal St George's have helped to establish new lizard orchid colonies in southern England.

Peter Carey, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridgeshire, said: "The species has spread to golf courses so far apart it seems likely golfers carried them there from Royal St George's. The seeds are extremely small and can stick to moisture on clothing by surface tension alone."

Phil Williams, an English Nature conservation officer, says this and other species, like the clove-scented broomrape (a parasitic plant that taps into the roots of its neighbors) and the bright wave moth, gained a foothold in the U.K. after crossing the English Channel. Typically Mediterranean species, they are at the northern edge of their range.

The club liaises with English Nature, a government agency responsible for wildlife conservation, in safeguarding its natural heritage.

Williams says the "rough" areas of the golf course are not subject to fertilizers, over-watering, and nutrient-enriching grass clippings, which would allow more vigorous plants to dominate. Similarly, grass cutting alongside the fairways is staggered to ensure a constant source of wildflower nectar for butterflies, moths, and other insects.

"Most of the orchids have already flowered but spectators should still enjoy a good splash of color," Williams said. "For instance, the bright yellows of lady's bedstraw and piercing blues of viper's bugloss."

In recognition of Royal St George's unofficial status as one of the country's top nature reserves, English Nature made it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Lizards and Toads

Many other British courses have become SSSIs in recent years—over 100 of them in England alone. They contain a range of nationally threatened species, including the pasque flower, sand crocus, natterjack toad, sand lizard, and black hairstreak butterfly.

The trend marks a remarkable transformation in the way conservationists see the sport. In the 1980s, during a major golfing boom, clubs were often accused of neglecting wildlife. With a surge in the number of courses and players came an intensive approach to turf management. Over-watered, over-fertilized, and doused in pesticides, they were regarded as a symptom of suburbia's march on the countryside—and its indifference towards the flora and fauna living there.

Since then, many clubs have sought to minimize their ecological impact. Some, like Royal St George's, are even recognized as key custodians of remnant habitat kept safe from bulldozer and plough.

Yet the general public has been slow to acknowledge this turnaround, said Alan Gange, senior lecturer in environmental science at Royal Holloway University of London.

Gange, who has studied people's perception of the amount of wildlife golf supports, said: "Having interviewed around 400 people, the answer we get to the question, "Are golf courses good are bad?," depends entirely on whether they play golf or not. If they play they think they're good, if not they think they're bad.

"The average size of a golf course is 60-odd hectares (about 150 acres), but only around three percent of that area is highly manicured turf—up to 60 percent is natural habitat. This is what most people who don't play golf don't realize."

Gange has compared the diversity of groups of species living on golf courses, including butterflies and bees, with those on surrounding farmland. He said: "Almost without exception we found that courses do enhance biodiversity."

And even those who visit this year's Open may have a role to play. With Royal St George's lizard orchids preparing to shed their seed, spectators could become the catalyst for budding colonies elsewhere.

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