Trees and woodland are key landscape and strategic features of golf courses, and yet they can often remain largely unmanaged from one decade into another. Crowded and un-thinned plantings will eventually become weak and unstable. Woodlands and plantings which are even-aged lack stability and structural diversity. As a result, many courses often find that all of their trees are in the one “proverbial” basket with dire consequences to both the appearance, playability and with limited options to get things back on track.
Wellingborough Golf Club is a private members’ club situated at the 18th Century Harrowden Hall in the heart of Northamptonshire. Established in 1893, the Club celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 2018.
The club hosts a magnificent championship golf course set in 160 acres of fine rolling parkland that regularly hosts a number of premier PGA & county events. It also provides a backdrop and setting for the magnificent Grade 2 listed Harrowden Hall.
The trees on the highly regarded parkland course have always been at the heart of the course’s appeal and it was on the back of this some twenty years ago the club established an ex office Tree Committee with the remit to take the long view, and work with the resource to secure it for the future.
A Pro-active Approach
This is not the first time that Wellingborough Golf Club has taken bold steps to manage their tree and woodland resource. With professional support from Lockhart Garratt, the Club developed a long-term plan for its woodland and parkland trees, all of which are protected by Tree Preservation Orders (TPO’s). The plan has helped to guide operational work that has included, thinning, felling, tree surgery and replacement planting.
Within the body of the course a phased programme of tree surgery helped to bring this fantastic resource back into a good stable and healthy condition. The plan highlighted the need to diversify the age class and the structure with particular importance on the parkland fringe that frames the course and provides the backdrop to the site. Thinning and some limited felling within the woodland belts, both in the surrounding belts and within the structure of the course, helped to diversity the structure and protect some key assets such as the listed parkland wall.
In conjunction with the felling the club planted new and replacement ‘drifts’ of trees, both within and adjacent to the woodland fringe, which surrounds the course and within the course lay-out. These plantations have been maintained well and have developed into key landscape features, adding greater variety of structure to the courses internal landscape and backdrop. However, their true value has only recently come to the fore in that they are providing the screening and continuity of structure that has enabled the club to address the challenges that they have faced as some of the critical boundary woodlands have started to succumb to disease and old age.
Having dropped out of the media spotlight, the true future impact of ash dieback is only now really coming to light. Ash dieback was identified within the course woodlands in 2016 and with the importance of this tree as a component of the course woodlands, it was clear to the club that it needed to once again take a pro-active and comprehensive approach.
Ash dieback: First confirmed in Britain in 2012, ash dieback, previously known as ‘Chalara’, is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Ash trees across much of England are affected by ash dieback, and it is expected that a vast majority of ash trees will die from the disease in the coming years.
Symptoms include leaf loss and crown dieback, and bark lesions, which directly result in tree decline and death. Growing trees may be weakened to the point where they more readily succumb to secondary pests or pathogens, e.g. Armillaria fungi (honey fungus).
Timescales on rates of decline vary; mortality has been observed in as little as two growing seasons. As an ash tree declines, it appears to rapidly loose timber strength and integrity and is prone to structural failure, making the management of infected trees costly and hazardous.
However, some ash trees appear to be able to tolerate or resist infection, and tree health scientists are studying the genetic factors, which make this possible so that tolerant ash trees can be bred for future.
Plan of Action
Working with the Wellingborough Golf Club Tree Committee, Lockhart Garratt prepared management recommendations based upon a full appraisal of the tree and woodland resource. The report was used to inform the Club management and their stakeholders and to provide assurances about the justification of the works.
The mature woodlands contained a large proportion of ash, all of which was suffering the effects of ash dieback. A thinning operation was planned, which would focus on the removal of ash (leaving the most robust specimens) and promoting the development of all other remaining trees (including oak, lime, sweet chestnut, yew and sycamore). Several small discreet groups of ash were felled and earmarked for re-planting. These small groupings were selected based on the concentration of ash trees, but also marked out to avoid large breaks in the canopy or tree line. These are to be re-planted over the next two seasons and will provide a new generation of trees, increased structural and species diversity and strengthen the integrity of the tree-scape.
In order to make these complex operations as cost effective and comprehensive as possible, work was specified and structured so as to facilitate the use of specialist forestry equipment, including harvesters and a forwarder. Certainly not your standard golf course equipment, but ideally suited to the safe and controlled felling of large trees in very complex locations. Their use also helped to minimise the need for tree climbing and expensive tree surgery, in all but the most sensitive of locations.
Felled timber was extracted and transported off site for use in a range of timber products from firewood to furniture, and used to offset some of the costs of the complex and sensitive operations.
The works were contracted to KWR Plant Hire Limited, whose specialist knowledge and exceptional skills greatly assisted to ensure the operations were undertaken safely and efficiently in tandem with the ongoing use of the course.
Thinking more widely
When we talk about tree management, many people think solely in terms of tree safety and managing individual trees. Tree safety is of course a key issue on golf courses and the aim was to combine an operation which would deal with current (and potential future) tree safety issues along with silvicultural management of the trees and woodland.
A manicured finish was important to achieve as the course is within parkland. Use of specialist forestry mulching equipment helped to deliver sites that were level and clear of rubbish and brash – this high-level finish also helped to achieve excellent planting sites, which can be easily maintained.
Management of people and safety was also a key issue of this operation as well as avoiding damage to heritage features and the course itself. Careful planning, clear communication with the club and the course staff, the effective use of specialist equipment and well briefed and high quality operators was critical to ensuring that this was achieved.
We all appreciate the beauty of trees and the value that they bring to our landscapes and the settings of some of our most treasured places. For some I am sure this will mean their favourite golf hole.
However, in the current fast moving environment, they cannot be taken for granted and long-term and strategic planning and action, as has been taken at Wellingborough, is critical to ensure that this wonderful resource can be treasured by generations to come.
The proactive and enlightened attitude of the club led by the Chairman of the Greens Committee, Chris Billson, and the club grounds staff has ensured that this will be the case. The founder of the original Tree Committee Dr Mike Spencer, who has sadly now passed on, would be heartened to know that his legacy is secure and in safe hands.
“We are an organisation that takes a proactive approach to all aspects of our club, and the tree and woodland resource is no exception. Tree health and tree safety is an important subject and we realised that it was time that we tackled the management of our course woodland. Combining management of ash dieback with thinning and restructuring the woodlands was an efficient way to deal with several issues in one cost-effective hit. Lockhart Garratt have provided excellent support through planning the project, specifying the work, identifying the contractors and then working with the Club to supervise the work and bring the project in on time, on budget and delivering an excellent final result.” Chris Billson, Chairman of the Greens Committee.