Turf: Play safe on grounds

Sports turf expert Lee Penrose shares his key tips for sustainable grounds management with Gavin McEwan.

Golf: furthering environmentally sustainable practices. Image: HW
Golf: furthering environmentally sustainable practices. Image: HW

With around 25 separate pieces of legislation governing the environmental aspects of grounds care, keeping on the right side of the law can be a headache for managers. But effort put in here can also bring rewards, from cost savings to a better public image.

In recent years, the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) has taken a lead on providing environmental support and advice to the sports industry. STRI environmental consultant Lee Penrose says: "Until recently, environmental and wildlife legislation was pretty slack. It wasn't properly policed and even if you were caught the punishments weren't very strong. But now it's becoming more stringent and the fines are getting heavier.

"Twenty years ago the issue wasn't even considered in grounds care, but things have moved dramatically over the past five years. The moves are in the right direction, but we are still a long way behind other industries."

Within the sector, golf has done more to further environmentally-sustainable practices than other areas of grounds care, he points out. "If you have 60-70ha of ground, there's an inherent ecological value that is not so apparent if you're managing training facilities for a football club."

Penrose compares the situation with health and safety. "Twenty years ago it was largely ignored, but now health and safety is part of everything a groundsman does. In five years' time, I see environmental issues being treated in the same way."

He adds that when they do make strides towards greater sustainability, organisations should get the word out about it through such things as environmental awards. "The public are increasingly selecting how they spend their money on environmental credentials," he says. "If you have a proper environmental policy in place, it can be great PR."


1. "Close the loop" by treating water run-off on-site

The EU's Water Framework Directive will ramp up requirements to maintain water quality in rivers, lakes and ground water. Though technically in force for nearly 10 years, its practical consequences will only be seen in the next five years. "Its implementation will differ from region to region," says Penrose.

"If you're washing down after mowing, the water will pick up pollutants from the equipment along with grass cuttings. In future, you may have to filter that before it leaves the site."

He adds: "One of the most environmentally-friendly ways to do that is with a reed bed system. If you install one now, you are future-proofing your site against whatever the directive will require."


2. Make sure that all chemicals are securely stored

Chemical storage is highly regulated, and staff should check with the Environment Agency that they are in full compliance. "It's not acceptable any more to just pile chemicals up in a corner of the shed," stresses Penrose.

Oils and fuels, for example, should be stored in a "secondary containment system" such as an impermeable bund, which will retain the contents of the entire primary container should a spillage occur.

In addition, hazardous chemicals will come with a safety data sheet covering their storage and use, which must be fully complied with.


3. Dispose of controlled waste properly

Not surprisingly, the disposal of chemicals is also extensively regulated and some chemical materials can only be legally got rid of by a licensed contractor. "It's socially unacceptable to just chuck them out," says Penrose.

All vehicles carrying controlled waste for profit must be licensed by the Environment Agency. Anyone found carrying controlled waste without such a licence faces a fine of up to £5,000. The agency has even set up an "incident line", through which those suspected of illegal chemical disposal can be reported.


4. Compost green waste on-site

Even harmless waste is becoming harder to dispose of. "The landfill tax has doubled over the past four years and will only go in one direction in future," says Penrose. "It's already up to £48 a tonne, which can soon add up to bills of thousands of pounds."

Minchinhampton Golf Club in Gloucestershire has saved a total of £1,500 by incorporating shredded cardboard waste from its clubhouse into its compost rather than paying for it to be taken away. The compost is not only used on the course but it is also sold to members, yielding a further £250 in revenue for the club.

Penrose points out that there are plenty of uses for compost on the typical course too. "They will use it to build up new tees and it's great as a top dressing or for planting trees in," he says.

"A school or university grounds will also have a lot of grass, leaves, soil cores and other green waste. Managing it isn't rocket science - you just have to mix it in the right proportions."

The turf world is not often thought of as a hotbed of thinking on compost, but the STRI hosts one of the country's top experts in the subject in Dr David Lawson. "He is responsible for some cutting-edge thinking on compost," says Penrose.


5. Make space for wildlife

Earlier this year, a Welsh golf course was prosecuted for damaging the habitat of rare water voles in what was widely seen as a test case.

But according to Penrose, keeping on the right side of the law "is an opportunity to bring people taking part in outdoor sports closer to wildlife".

What's more, it needn't be costly. "Those perimeter areas are often the most difficult and expensive to maintain," he says. "You could well be wasting time and energy on them that would be better spent on your core areas."

He suggests wild flower meadows and informal hedgerows as opportunities not only to enrich the habitat value of a site, but also to cut down on maintenance. Again, golf has taken the lead on this, he adds.

"At least half of courses have some policy on encouraging wildlife in their roughs and other areas - mainly because of the savings it brings, especially in summer."


Opportunities limited on smaller sites

However, opportunities on smaller sites "are less obvious", Penrose concedes. But he adds: "I visit around 20 grounds a year, ranging from hospitals to schools to private estates, and I have yet to see one that could not make more of the opportunities that it has.

"When you get a complete package together, you can save some serious money - it's a win-win situation. All it takes is a bit of lateral thinking."

Not all environmental measures have a financial payback, but that should not rule them out for organisations operating on tight budgets.

"The funding opportunities are not so widely known," says Penrose. "But they all have their stipulations - for example, if you want to build a pond on private grounds, you may have to open it up to the public for some of the time and plant it up with native species."

He points to the example of a recent project to green up a sports field at the University of Westminster in London. "It was work they were going to do anyway, but in the end the 1km of hedging was paid for by the London branch of the Forestry Commission," he says.

"It is well worth doing a little bit of research into what help is available before you get started."


The "Home of Golf" consists of seven courses including the famous Old Course, which will host next year's British Open. But the sport's elite may not be aware that they are also playing on one of the most environmentally forward-thinking of golfing resorts.

The St Andrews Links Trust, which manages the courses, was overall winner of the STRI's 2009 Golf Course Environment Awards earlier this year. According to the organisers: "The St Andrews site is an example for others to follow in terms of environmental and ecological management - proof that high end courses with large numbers of playing golfers do not necessarily mean high inputs and environmental damage."

A reed bed that absorbs run-off from the wash down area was described as "of an exemplary quality and its installation is a proactive and impressive environmental project". The run-off passes through two gravel beds planted up with common reeds, whose roots are home to bacteria that absorb impurities from the water, which can then run on to a soakaway.

According to course representative Mike Woodcock: "There are also large areas of natural habitat around the courses that are home to quite a lot of hares and bird life."

The coastal habitat of grassy dunes has been restored in places by removing gorse, rose and brambles, allowing sea lyme and marram grass to flourish. And scarification of the roughs in spring maintains an open cover that is well suited to hares and ground-nesting birds. Sand martens are also encouraged through the creation of fresh sand faces early in the season.

St Andrews opened its seventh course, the Castle Course, last year. The informal design allows plenty of room for wild flower meadows. "There can be extra expenditure, but players appreciate it - it's a nice backdrop to the game, creating a feeling of seclusion," says Woodcock.

"As a charitable trust, we manage the links as a piece of public land for future generations. We take a light approach to fertiliser and chemical use and use natural materials where we can."

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