The ‘green’ issue: do golf courses damage the environment?

A WWF Turkey ad about the environmental impact of golfI love this week’s story about the Scottish pensioner who’s taking on property magnate Donald Trump to contest his golf course development in Menie, Aberdeenshire.

85-year-old Molly Forbes, who lives on the Menie Estate, says the development will threaten her home. She’s launched a legal challenge against the plans, claiming that environmental assessment regulations were not met, and that the impact of the complex on nearby conservation sites has not been considered. The Scotsman pits Forbes and Trump against each other as David and Goliath in terms of their respective property portfolios – though when the journalist describes Molly’s legal representation as an expert on “environ-mental matters”, I’m not sure he intended the hyphen….

It got me thinking about other negative stories I have read about the impact of golf on the environment.

I’m not against golf and golfers per-se. I once had a very enjoyable lesson at The Belfry and apparently I showed great promise. And I’ve picked up on a few ‘good news’ stories about the eco-credentials of golf recently.

The RSPB has this month co-authored a book which says golf courses can play an important role as sanctuaries for endangered birds and other wildlife. It’s had some reports of golfers who combine playing the sport with wildlife-spotting (‘birdies’ and ‘eagles’ I presume?)

And a few months back, I spoke to Carlton Carugati, general manager of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, who explained about a new species of grass which can live on salt-water, meaning valuable drinking water supplies are not affected.

But while I can appreciate some golf courses are really doing their best (as the Golf Environmental Awards attests), I can’t help thinking that the overall impact of golfing, and particularly the construction of new courses, is pretty negative.

In 2004, WWF estimated that 10,000-15,000 cubic meters of freshwater were needed to keep golf courses in south-east Spain green for a year: “At this rate, the water used on one golf course could supply a town of 12,000 inhabitants with enough water for a whole year”. Salt-water grass sounds marvellous but until all golf courses are obliged to use it, a lot aren’t going to bother.A WWF Turkey ad about how much water golf courses use

Columnist George Monbiot highlights another study which says an 18-hole golf course requires 22 tonnes of chemicals and pesticides per year.

The Tourism Concern website gives lots of instances of environmental and social damage caused by the creation and sustaining of golf resorts around the world.

Just last week I was interested to learn that golf balls can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and that they release a dangerous amount of zinc as they do so. When they dredged Loch Ness in Soctland in April, they found a very different monster from the deep – hundreds of thousands of golf balls just sitting there, poisoning the water.

Golf ball littering is fairly easily resolved: any golfer who’s aim is not so good (and not just you, Dad) should invest in the biodegradable golf balls that are now on the market, made from water-soluble materials.

But to address the wider issue, and since the popularity of golf shows no signs of waning in future, I wonder if there ought to be a system of green certification so that those golf clubs which really strive to be environmentally responsible can be distinguished. A kind of ‘fair trade’ guide to golfing, perhaps. Or would that be ‘fairway trade’?

But I can’t help thinking the overall global impact, particularly of the construction of new courses, cannot be a good thing.

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