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Plant in Haste - Fell at Leisure
by Jim Arthur


Few events, in my experience, raise as big a hullabaloo in any Golf Club as do proposals to fell some venerated tree - long since outgrown the area allotted to it - or to clear scrub and saplings. These 'tree-huggers' fail to understand an immutable law of nature, that everything grows and if not kept in control by natural methods, then managerial control is essential. The plea "Woodman, spare that tree" (Hoagy Carmichael fans, please enlighten the less well-informed), at least had the merit that the slippery elm in question, up which its defender could climb just like a healthy squirrel, was his last resort from matrimonial strife !

What is all too rarely accepted by preservationists, as opposed to conservationists, is that change is inevitable and only by positive management can a reasonable status quo be maintained. Just look at photographs of our older courses taken at the start and at the end of this century. The spectacular growth of trees is all too obvious, proving the 200 year old adage, 'tall oaks from little acorns grow'. Look also at our erstwhile heathland courses, not a tree in sight seventy or more years ago, now with fairways flanked by coniferous plantations and rough infested with birch scrub.

Golf is a game of windswept open spaces. It need not be screened from critical or inquisitive onlookers. Most golfers would assess links and then heathland as epitomising the best golfing conditions. Gloomy avenues of encroaching conifers, wet and dark in winter and often fly-ridden in summer, are not appreciated by the majority. To maintain such open conditions demands ruthless management, not only the clean felling of trees which have out-grown the space available, but also the clearing out of scrub, brambles, rhododendrons and the topping of heather and gorse, thus increasing light and air. When you can feel the breeze in your face on approaching an erstwhile dank, stagnant hole, it is not just the golfer who appreciates the change but the turf itself.

Trees planted (or allowed to remain) close to greens and tees do not just increase disease or create soft wet putting surfaces or interfere with play, but also their invasive roots travel in search of water under irrigated playing surfaces. Sea-buckthorn (an invasive alien planted to stabilise coastal dunes a century ago) joins the scrub white poplar, as enemy No. 1 on golf links. The latter created a chronic problem at Royal Birkdale, until large areas were ruthlessly eradicated, with the blessing and guidance of true conservationists.

Many of the culprit trees were planted decades ago and are a self-inflicted wound. Many too are of the wrong species. Poplars, planted to define fairways simply because they grew so quickly and optimistically to protect golfers from stray balls on parallel holes, always have to be removed, using heavy machinery to extract them, roots and all, like giant molars. They often bring up surface spreading roots encased in broken tile drains for the full width of the fairway - no wonder the fairways become water-logged.

Many times I have criticised the planting of flowering cherries or similar out-of-character ornamentals on golf courses. If you must plant, look around and see what grows naturally. Few conifers and certainly no Leylandii !! Envisage what will be the size of the selected species in say, 25-50 years time. Will their roots, let alone their branches invade greens, will they block the line of sight from the tees ? If you ignore these rules you will condemn your successors to the rage of tree-hugging members when the culprits have to be felled.

The three areas of concern regarding tree invasion are first and foremost on heathland courses; second, individual mature specimens causing problems with visibility as well as shade; and lastly, courses planted years ago with coniferous plantations between fairways, leaving dark gloomy tree-girt avenues and total sterility between. In the first case, virtually every tree should come out of the rough, roots and all, together with all sapling birch and pine. Make sure the roots are cut off with a mattock or use stump grinders to convert the more obdurate boles to sawdust in quick time. Heather hates three things; traffic, anything alkaline and grass. Divert the first, avoid the second and spray the grass (in February) with an approved herbicide.

With overgrown mature trees, it always pays to remove them completely, including the stump, (blowing them out in extreme cases) rather than subjecting them to brutal tree surgery - some tree surgeons have never heard of chloroform! In wooded courses, there is a tendency to neglect management beyond a very narrow fringe. Yet dramatic results can be achieved by wholesale removal of brambles, scrub, etc, backed by spraying the re-growth in winter and the thinning out of mature trees to 15 m spacing. In one case, such work carried out against vociferous protests, produced in a very short time spectacular drifts of wild daffodils and later primroses, wood anemones and bluebells. It was not just the trees and flowers that benefited but the fairways which throve on the improved light and air.

For this work a large tractor-mounted flail is ideal - it will deal with even mature rhododendrons (another invasive pest) leaving only a few of the larger boughs to pick up, with the resultant pulverised mulch acting as a haven for plant and animal life alike. Stump grinders can deal with even the largest boles and the visual improvement has to be seen to be appreciated. The moral is to carry out this work in winter not just because this is the best time plant-wise but because there are less fair-weather critics about, but remember to clear up each day when most members will never see what has been done !