UK sports clubs boost biodiversity by leaving wild nature on their grounds

A row of apple trees defends the middle boundary of the wicket at Whalley Range cricket club in south Manchester, while aged linden trees with bird feeders and nests look on from across the grounds. A lone seagull prowls the outfield, while a noisy flock of starlings settles in on the slopes. In one corner of the lot, a mound of grass clippings can slowly rot, the perfect habitat for snakes, though club president Mike Hill confesses he’s been reluctant to see if any have moved.

Last year, the club won Cricketer magazine’s inaugural UK Greenest Ground award for its work in encouraging biodiversity. Badgers, hedgehogs and foxes are regular visitors and, with some help from the Woodland Trust, the grounds have over 200 trees, from a young chestnut tree to a mature Manchester poplar (aka downy black poplar), which shades the score box. .

The club stopped using pesticides, installed fast boxes under the eaves of the clubhouse and solar panels on the roof. The vegetables grow in large wooden planters and there are plans to be completely plastic-free.

“The neighbors love it,” says Hill. “You want to spend time here with color and calm.” As a sport, he says, cricket is more vulnerable than most to the weather, and last year the club had to water the plaza in April but saw games regularly wash up in June. “Climate change is very clear when you play cricket,” he says.

Across the UK, sports clubs are starting to do their bit for biodiversity, renouncing the desire to cut and tidy and allowing nature to take over. Even golf courses, for years dubbed “green deserts” by conservationists, are changing.

James Hutchinson, association services manager for ecology and sustainability at the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, remembers the widespread spraying of pesticides in the 1980s. “I remember thinking you are killing everything just to have a golf course.” , he says.

The UK has around 3,000 registered golf courses, many of which border important biodiversity hotspots such as sand dunes, heathlands and chalk plains. Hutchinson’s job is to help these clubs run their courses more naturally.

Many pesticides are now banned, so clubs are having to find alternatives, says Hutchinson. For example, leather jackets – crane fly larvae – are a real problem on fairways as they eat grass roots. Badgers and crows seek out the leather jackets, causing more trouble. So several clubs have installed starling nests to encourage the birds to enter the fields, because their slender beaks can catch the insects without damaging the lawn.

Golf even has its own environmental awards and this year’s winners included the Newquay Golf Club, where a rough ecological management plan saw wildflowers such as cranesbill, scabies and knapweed bloom and provide food for pollinators like the dark green fritillary and the six-point burnt moth. Weybrook Park Golf Club near Basingstoke has introduced lark protection areas, secluded areas that members were happy to give to the ground-nesting bird.

Water is the next big issue for clubs. “A number of courses may still be using network irrigation, but they are an endangered breed,” says Hutchinson, who is working with clubs to drill wells and create rainwater reservoirs to meet their irrigation needs, as well as growing older types. drought tolerant. of grass.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has been working with clubs and the golf charity FairWays Foundation, which is co-funding the Irvine to Girvan Nectar Network, a project to bring wildflower meadows back to the Ayrshire coast.

Network coordinator Lynne Bates is visiting clubs along the coast and providing flower seeds that can help create a continuous corridor connecting the fields to local nature reserves. The project is already making an impact, she says, with the little bluebird returning to Ayrshire for the first time since the 1980s. Britain’s smallest butterfly needs vetch for its caterpillars, and the plant is now plentiful in many. courses in Scotland and other coastal courses in the UK.

“Just adjusting the management of an area can make a huge difference,” says Bates. “Let it get a little messy because it’s those long, lightly overgrown, slightly wild looking areas that wildlife likes.”

Flat sand bunkers, with at least one uncut edge, are “sun traps for invertebrates,” she says, recalling how a greenkeeper recently tweeted that lone mining bees had established themselves in one of their bunkers. Not so long ago, they would have been seen as a pest.

Not everyone is convinced that the changes some golf courses are making are enough. Green Party colleague Natalie Bennett says: “The kind of [biodiverse-friendly] the things they are doing are very small scale and you still have fairways and greens which are an extremely destructive use of land.”

Pesticides, energy use and constant cutting have a huge environmental impact, she says. “I’m not saying to close every golf course in the country, but I think we need to look at land use… and that would very clearly mean fewer golf courses and that land being better used socially and environmentally.”

Other sports clubs are also reassessing their relationship with nature. The Northfield bowling club in Ayr is part of the nectar network and gardener Kieron Gallagher has created a meadow of wildflowers in a shaded area of ​​grass behind the main bleachers. In addition to uprooting the old grass, he planted the yellow rattle, nicknamed the meadowmaker, a semi-parasitic plant that exploits the roots of grass, weakening it and allowing other wildflowers to take hold.

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Plants like eyebright and bartsia play a similar role and are increasingly used by greenkeepers to thin grasslands, where crude species like yorkshire fog and meadow grass have taken over.

In addition, traditional roses have been uprooted to make way for another swath of wildflowers, and the new beds will provide pollen, nectar and a habitat for other insects, Bates says. “It’s an indirect effect, so these insects that arrive will be food for the birds. You need the little things deep inside to fuel everything else.”

Football club Girvan has also joined in, transforming the entrance to their land into a sensory garden, complete with fruit trees that attract pollinators. “It’s trying to show how sport and nature can live together,” says Bates.

Elsewhere, the Gloucester rugby club has teamed up with the local wildlife fund to install three rainwater gardens at their Kingsholm stadium. Using shallow depressions and raised planters, the gardens capture rain that would normally flow into drains. By storing and filtering water, gardens can reduce flooding and prevent pollutants from entering rivers.

Back in Manchester, Hill points out the young hawthorn and blackthorn bushes that have sprouted through knee-high grasses and clumps of scarlet pimpernel. A five-foot-wide strip between neighbors’ fences and the edge of the cricket pitch grows wild, and while the temptation is to catch a strimmer, he says, this area is home to butterflies and bees. “It might be a little difficult to find a cricket ball,” he adds, “but it’s not the end of the world, unlike climate change.”

Find more coverage of the age of extinction here and follow the biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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