Nature on Course

My name is Steve Thompson and I have been a greenkeeper at John o Gaunt Golf Club in Bedfordshire for 25 years. Back in 1990 when I started I did not realise just how good a golf course can be for wildlife. Golf courses have always had a bit of a stigma as being no good for wildlife or described as ‘sterile deserts` but hopefully when you have read this you will come to realise just what an amazing place they can be.

Comma butterfly

I have always had an interest in birds and I love working outside, so I thought being on the golf course I might see a few birds amongst the grass but it's proved to be so much more. One of the projects I have been involved in at the club is the Nestbox project. This initially started in 1996 with the installation of a Barn Owl Box by the Hawk & Owl Trust (used for the first 2 years by Barn Owl) and then a Kestrel box in 1998. After a few years in 2000 I decided to put up several small boxes for birds like Blue & Great Tits, these worked well so the following year I called in a local expert for some advice on how many he thought we could fit on the 2 courses, he suggested around 70-80, I just laughed. We now have a total of 125!

The scheme has been a huge success. We have a wide variety of boxes to cater for a number of species: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Robin, Jackdaw, Tawny Owl, Kestrel, Barn Owl, Stock Dove, Great Spotted Woodpecker and we have a few Bat boxes too. I keep records of what we find in the boxes. To give you an idea of numbers. In 2009 we found 478 chicks in the boxes, this compares to 2012 when we found just 226 (probably due to the wet weather) and in 2015 there were 342. Through this scheme there has been a huge increase in the local avian population: I am now a licensed ringer with a C permit so I am able to ring the chicks in the boxes. Our records so far: 2253 BLUE TITS, 911 GREAT TITS, 20 KESTRELS, 21 JACKDAWS, 10 STOCK DOVES.

In addition to this nestbox project, we installed some Swift boxes in 2014 and an amplifier and speakers to playback the sounds of swifts to encourage them into the nest. Swifts are often seen flying over the car park during late spring and summer but have not nested yet. During my time at the club, I have recorded approximately 100 species of birds Including more unusual birds such as Osprey, Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Common Tern, Woodcock, Curlew and Waxwing.

Badgers on the golf course at night

But it’s not just about the birds here, we are lucky to have some very special resident mammals. The Water Vole is a declining species but has found a good home along the brook that runs through the John o Gaunt course. In fact, after a survey last year, this short stretch of the brook is the best place in the whole of Bedfordshire to see Water Vole. Also, we have had an otter visiting on several occasions.

Surely everyone’s favourite mammal is the Badger and they have been resident at the golf club for longer than I have been there. In recent years they have become much more active creating new holes amongst their sets but also creating some damage on the course, whilst this is frustrating for us greenkeepers we just repair any damage and carry on with our job. About 6 years ago I started doing Badger watches either by myself or with a few friends, initially, I didn’t see much but as the activity increased so did my sightings.

The Badgers I think have got used to my smell and I have been lucky enough to get within 3-4 feet. There has been an increased interest amongst the membership at the club in general wildlife but in particular Badgers. In August 2015 I decided to do some Badger watches for the members and their families. The first 2 were fully booked within 24hrs and I ended up doing every Wednesday throughout August and September plus a few extra dates in-between and still had to turn people away. Several of the people that came along to the Badger evenings had never seen a live one before and went away at the end of the evening seeing 5.

On every Badger watch (except one which got rained off) we saw a minimum of 5 and twice we saw 8. One delighted 11-year-old girl even phoned radio 2 to voice her delight at seeing the Badgers. These delightful animals really do put smiles on people’s faces especially when seeing them at such close quarters. The best night was probably seeing 6 feeding together right in front of us about 6 feet away.

Steve Thompson at John O Gaunt Golf Course

Another mammal that perhaps people don’t even know is there is the Bat. We have a probable 8 species recorded at the club: Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, Serotine, Noctule, Brown Long-eared, Daubenton’s, Possible Natterers and a Possible Barbastelle (heard with aid of a bat detector Aug 2015).

Another major project that I have been involved in at the club is Operation Pollinator. It is a scheme designed to help our native bees and other pollinating insects such as butterflies and moths etc. by the creation of wildflower areas around the course.

We picked one area that was out of play but between 2 fairways and near the brook, in 2011 it was dry weedy and not much grass growing, In October