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Downland Golf Collaboration – aims and objectives

Downland Golf Collaboration – aims and objectives

The Downland Golf Collaboration is a consortium of golf clubs whose courses are laid out on the chalk downland hills in southern England. Many of the courses date back to the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century. They are traditionally free-draining with fast running fairways and firm greens; they are set in an open grassland habitat with great diversity of flora and insect life including many rare species.; and as they are set on hills they are typically windy with outstanding views of the surrounding countryside.

It is estimated that since the Second World War over eighty percent of chalk downland has been lost mostly due to a move away from sheep grazing to more intensive forms of agriculture using pesticides and chemical fertilisers. As it has now become such a rare habitat, Natural England has responsibilities to protect and preserve it. In this context the downland golf courses are an important part of the remaining downland habitat in the country.

The downland courses themselves have changed character over recent decades. Tree planting programmes and scrub growth have transformed them and they have become more parkland-like. With more shade, fairways and greens have softened and leafdrop has enriched the soils reducing the diversity of plant life. Many of the once-fine vistas have also been lost on golf courses now with tree-lined fairways.

The aim of the Downland Golf Collaboration is to support the regeneration of the downland habitat and to re-establish the distinctive character of the courses. The member Clubs individually have recognised the importance of this and to this end have been undertaking a variety of programmes of work in recent times. These have included the removal of trees not consistent with chalk downland; the removal and management of invasive scrub, mostly hawthorn; and, in the absence of sheep, the mowing of grassland and removal of hay.

To achieve this overall aim, the Downland Golf Collaboration has been formed to draw upon the variety of experiences of the individual clubs. This is viewed as an ongoing process of information-sharing, innovation and support. Via a process of communication and learning, it is hoped that best practices can then be developed to the benefit of all. The re-establishment of the distinctive character of the downland courses can then be more widely communicated to the golfing world.

Background: what is downland?

Downland is an area of open chalk hills, typically used to describe the chalk countryside in southern England.

The chalk was laid down over 65 million years ago when this part of the world was tropical and covered by warm shallow seas. The source of the chalk is the fossil remains of minute planktonic algae, predominantly coccoliths, which sank to the bottom of those ancient seas. These fossils accumulated over millions of years and the sediment compacted into a thick layer of almost pure calcium carbonate.

Downland is formed when chalk formations are raise above the surrounding rocks. The chalk slowly erodes to form rolling hills and valleys. As the chalk layer in southern England is typically tilted, chalk downland formations often have a marked steeper ‘scarp’ slope on one side and a gentler ‘dip’ slope on the other. Where the downs meet the sea, characteristic white chalk cliffs have formed, such as the White Cliffs of Dover and Beachy Head.

Chalk is highly porous, so downland tends to drain easily. Furthermore, downland topsoil is typically thin and deficient in nutrients. It is poor quality land from an agricultural perspective and so over the centuries has most commonly been used for sheep grazing. Because of this, downland has traditionally consisted of a landscape of open grassland. Without grazing, it would quickly revert to wildwood and dense scrub, most commonly hawthorn.

Chalk soil being poor in nutrients means that no one species tends to dominate resulting in greater biodiversity than in other habitats. The alkaline soil allows rare forms of flora to develop which in turn attract rare forms of insect life.

It is estimated that over 80 percent of chalk downland has been lost since the Second World War due to a combination of urban expansion and more intensive forms of agriculture. And this decline continues to this day. It is estimated that about 30,000 hectares of lowland calcareous grassland remain in the UK, following a decrease of about 13 000 ha in the area of this habitat between 1990 and 2007 (Natural Environment Research Council, 2009).

For this reason, chalk downland golf courses are viewed as vital from a preservation perspective.