The club have a Higher Level Stewardship agreement with Natural England (NE), which is a government department whose purpose is to protect and improve England’s natural environment. Negotiations (by Harvey Linehan) in 2014, resulted in a 10 year management plan for heathland conservation by which the club commits to actions to conserve and improve our existing open heathland, and regenerate more, with the full backing of NE. In return NE will contribute between £50k and £60k over 10 years for materials and labour costs.
Between 1900 and 1997 Britain lost 60% of its lowland heathland, and Piltdown Common reflected this. Until 50 years ago there was hardly a tree on the course (our aerial photo of 1963 shows this): by 1995 we had about 25,000 maturing birch and young oak, which was the time we started tree clearance and heather restoration work. Trees destroy heather as their leaf fall enriches soil nutrients; grass then thrives on richer soils and heather cannot compete and is overtaken. To restore heather here we have removed thousands of trees already and then scraped in some areas, removing 150mm (6”) of fertile top soil before spreading heather seed on the scrapes. Without bunkers, Piltdown was for many years losing heather and at risk of becoming bland. Just one example: all the heather beyond the stream at the 3rd has been regenerated to frame the fairway and make the shot challenging.
Most of the scraping this winter will be off the course, and carried out by a contractor. We will collect heather seed by using a vertical chain flail and collecting bin, which will also have the beneficial side effect of opening up the semi-continuous heather surface that has developed in places in the last couple of years; this should make it easier to find and play your ball, and we will flail the areas nearest the fairways first.
Tree clearances will be modest in scale, to open up views across the course as well as to help promote heather, and will be carried out by a contractor so as to leave our green staff free for all the vital turf care involved in our current course changes.
The Green Management Team recently discussed the appearance (and playability) of the heather-topped banks which have been added to some holes over the last 7 years, and which have caused concern among members.
History; Some of the heather banks have excellent quality heather and have needed no remedial work (eg right of 2nd, some at 10th, left of 13th) while others have been slow to mature and suffered invasion by weeds, bramble or gorse. The variation is mostly because at the time of construction we had only a limited supply of best quality heather turf available in our off-course nursery areas, and had to turn to some lower quality areas here and to AshdownForest for extra turf, cutting and collecting gratefully whatever was offered.
Remedial work; This always involves hand work on the banks, not machinery, in contrast to the rest of our mechanised heather maintenance work. The many heather scrapes around the course (25 in recent years) have produced 80-100% heather cover with very little weed problem, because the scraping has removed most soil nutrients, and also because we mow above the heather level twice in the summer (cutting off grass, bramble and saplings) and then cut the heather itself in the autumn. We cannot use the same time-saving machinery on the banks.
What we have been doing is to use strimmers, hand weeding, digging out of grass etc using mattocks, spot spraying (using a back pack), and hand application of poison to thick gorse stems. This is very consuming indeed of staff time. Those members who have kindly volunteered for work parties on the banks in the past know only too well how long it takes to do hand weeding.
The future; The new banks being created this winter will be topped entirely with heather from within the course, and our nurseries have much more heather available, so we have selected carefully the purest heather for the purpose. We have so far lacked a chemical treatment for existing banks that is as effective as we need: we are currently trialling a new product. We intend to put more staff time into improving the appearance of the banks, with more strimming in particular. Where banks are very heavily infested with a great many small gorse stems it is impossible to poison them or dig them all out, and heavy strimming to keep them down to a findable/playable height is all we can do. In the longer term it may be necessary to replant such banks completely with new pure heather turfs. In a few years time we can expect to have very large areas of new heather available from the new scrapes being made at present.