GOLFERS SHOULD BE hugely grateful to those Neolithic farmers of 4,000 years ago. They domesticated animals, cleared woodlands so that settlements could be developed and their animals grazed. These cleared areas were more exposed to the elements leading to a leaching of nutrients and creating acidic soils that were slowly colonised by dwarf shrubs such as heather, gorse and broom. The first lowland heaths were created that have subsequently provided those well-drained sites for the outstanding golf courses that so many of us enjoy playing today, not least of which is our own Royal Ashdown Forest.
What is important to realise is that heathland not only was man-made but needs regular maintenance otherwise it will simply revert to woodland. Over the centuries gorse tops were cut for animal fodder, bracken taken for their bedding whilst incursive trees were regularly felled to provide fuel as the animals continued to graze. Thus those open areas were maintained.
Over the centuries a wide variety of birds, animals and insects became adapted to lowland heaths as, by the end of the 18th century, vast swathes of East Anglia, the Midlands, South and West England were covered by heathland. Birds such as the Dartford Warbler (see picture above), Stonechat, Nightjar and Green Woodpecker thrived as did animals including hares, stoats, weasels, slow worms, smooth snakes, adders, natterjack toads and sand lizards. Over half the UK’s species of dragonflies are to be found on lowland heath.
The only problem is that lowland heath has disappeared at an alarming rate. Since 1800 over 83% has vanished. Changes in agriculture, lack of management and development has seen 17% vanish over the last 50 years alone. The 6,500 acres of Ashdown Forest contains 60% heathland, some three per cent of the country’s total and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The golf course covers 220 acres and forms part of the heathland that the Ashdown Forest Board of Conservators are so keen to protect and this means not only preventing trees invading the site in order to restore the large areas of heather that have been lost since the Second World War but also felling trees that have grown over the last 50 years. It is this felling that often causes controversy.
Old photographs from the 1920s of the Ashdown golf course (see below) show just how open the heathland was in the days that commoners still exercised their rights to graze animals on the forest. Their demise and the decline of active management during and following the last war did a huge amount to produce the tree lined fairways that we see today.
Since 2006 Government funding of over £3m spread across 10 years through its Higher Level Stewardship Scheme has been received by the Forest Conservators to restore precious heathland. Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club has worked closely with the Conservators to ensure that the area covered by the course fulfils their policy. Thus trees have been felled, alien shrubs, such as rhododendron, removed and grass left unwatered and unfertilised to preserve its raw, heathland state.
These open spaces on the course not only provide wonderful views for walkers and golfers alike but also allow the heathland ecosystem of flora and fauna, many of which are extremely rare, to thrive in their traditional environment. As a former Superintendent of the Forest Conservators, Huw Predergast, wrote to a resident complaining furiously about the felling of trees on the golf course. ‘The critical point is that these regimes are good for golf and good for the environment.’
It is a pleasing thought that what is good for the golf course by felling certain trees that reduce sunlight and the flow of air to fairways and greens is also doing a great deal to preserve one of the country’s last great heathlands as well.