For many years, golf courses and golf estates have had a reputation for being insensitive to the environment.

This insensitivity has supposedly manifested itself on a number of levels, from using prime arable land for the building of estates and golf courses (in the case of the new developments), to guzzling potable water to irrigate the playing areas and generally acting as a handbrake on efforts to be in step with the need to be more environmentally friendly in how we, as a species, conduct our interactions with Mother Nature.

In the middle part of the last century, most of these criticisms were certainly valid when applied to the general mores of the time. It took an awakening by London, for example, to clean up its environment with a report in 1957 in which the Natural History Museum declared one of the World’s most iconic rivers, the Thames, to be ‘biologically dead’!

The same river, 60 years on, is now home to over 150 different species of fish and the tidal sections (once described in the same report as a vast open sewer) now receive regular visits from seals (2 000 sightings in the past decade) and even the occasional passing whale.

Notwithstanding the key drivers which, along with a lack of care and awareness, lead to most of the problems, but which are deemed ‘necessary’ for many countries’ economic survival, the acceptance for the need for us to change our behaviour, in terms of the environment, is now universally accepted, with the exception of some notable and increasingly isolated stand-outs.

For many golf courses the change in habits has been good. Modifying their maintenance processes and layouts to be less thirsty, within the development of overall environments that are more eco-friendly, has proven to be good business for many courses.

The impact can be seen immediately, especially in terms of the aesthetics. An abundance of natural grassland and parks areas and increased bird, small animal and insect life brings the environment to life and makes it much more attractive and interesting for homeowners and residents.

These types of changes have been in place for some years. For example, some 10 years ago, while a homeowner in Dainfern, in one week I saw a Leguaan (Monitor lizard) stroll across our pool area, a porcupine rattling his quills as he skirted the house and a large hare trying to clear the side wall into the next property. Mole snakes, green bush snakes and green snakes, along with a family of guinea fowl were all regular visitors. All of this strongly suggests an estate in balance with its environment.

In terms of any golf course, less per-square metres of playing surfaces reduces the need for specialised fertilisers and watering volumes.

No one can afford to use potable water from a municipal tap to water extensively, so many estates and golf courses have reclamation systems to ensure that only recycled grey water is used for irrigation purposes.

The use of top class land to develop golf estates is, in most cases, completely unfounded and the supposed degradation this causes is even more unreasonable. Common business sense dictates that a developer will not be able to make the necessary ROIs on the development, which are mostly very low density, by using prime land.

In many cases, such as Eagle Canyon (western suburbs of Johannesburg) and Ebotse (East Rand), the developers took land that had become dumping grounds and cesspools and completely rehabilitated them. In the case of Ebotse it would not be far-fetched to guess that the amount of trucks, put nose to tail, required to move soil around the estate’s site and then remove the accumulated detritus and rubbish found in cleaning up the filthy slimes dams, would have reached from Benoni to Cape Town.

The removal of invasive species from golf estates and the environs of the courses is of great benefit to the general environment. However, the influence of common sense, so rarely considered when knocking golf and its impact on the environment, can also clearly be seen from the golf management perspective and that of the developments themselves. The removal of these types of vegetation saves money as they are generally thirsty, fast growing and quickly encroach on the course’s footprint.

But rather than indulge in generalisations any further, let’s instead focus one estate’s activities as far as lowering its environmental impact is concerned.

Blair Atholl Golf & Equestrian Estate, near Lanseria Airport, has been developed on what used to be Gary Player’s home and farm. The term ‘farm’ is used loosely and, as horses were a focus then, perhaps ‘ranch’ would be more appropriate, and was in fact a collection of undeveloped and or disused properties, the rehabilitation and beautification of which is an ongoing process.

The estate is currently very low density, which immediately lowers its impact on water and related resources and is very unusual in that each home’s stand does not join onto those of the neighbouring properties. This structure also allows for green corridors so that wildlife can transition through and across the area.

The HOA (homeowners association) board, having recently taken control of the running of the estate from the original developer, has set about rationalising the maintenance processes and addressing various issues and challenges that are common throughout South Africa, although the vegetation species types will show regional variations.

  • The HOA has initiated a plan to remove pockets of invasive pompom weeds on the estate. Various methods are being used and monitored to test the efficacy of the various options on different sections to see what process is the most effective.
  • The HOA’s management is in continual contact with the department of agriculture and forestation. This engagement is to:
  1. Stay abreast of any news and best practices
  2. Assist in the identification and removal of invasive vegetation
  3. Remain in step with compliance requirements and any developments in this area
  • An environmental forum has been established for the community. This will enable individual homeowners and residents to participate in various projects, such as water monitoring of the Crocodile River, the Rhenosterspruit Conservancy, support river bank rehabilitation, assist with wildlife preservation, etc.
  • The estate has contracted out its course maintenance and the contract company is assisting with various initiatives, including:
  1. The removal of Kikuyu grass in the playing areas and the re-establishment of the drought resistant Cynodon grass type via re-seeding and/or re-sodding from the estate’s own nursery
  2. The narrowing of fairways on the golf course, which allows less cutting time and results in lower emissions and noise pollution from the course machinery
  3. Reducing the square metres of turf grass areas requiring specialised maintenance. This intervention has resulted in less fertiliser being needed to keep the course in top playing condition and has also lowered the carbon footprint
  • Sludge beds have been established at the estate’s sewerage plant to:
  1. Create the estate’s own source of compost
  2. Lower the carbon footprint
  3. Help remove the associated organic hazard present with any sewage process
  • In terms of managing the vegetation, the estate is engaged in an ongoing process to:
  1. Remove pockets of blue gum and wattle trees to lessen their impact on ground water resources
  2. Re-establish natural indigenous grassland areas
  3. Create new areas and protect any existing habitat suitable for bird, insect and animal life
  4. Improve the soil quality in previously shaded areas
  • The irrigation system has been overhauled and the replacement of many circle head sprinklers has allowed the maintenance teams to irrigate more accurately, and the resulting efficiency has reduced water consumption.
  • Blair Atholl has built its own nursery, from which it has replanted over 1 000 trees on the estate, all of which are indigenous, and in which another 3 000 are currently being grown for planting through 2020 and 2021.
  • Controlled burning is carried out annually during the winter months, both to create safety firebreaks and also to help to rejuvenate wild plants and grassland areas.
  • Over the past four years, over 600 aloes and succulents have been planted along the edges of the golf course to add to the indigenous natural features.

Are these initiatives indicative of a careless residential golf and lifestyle estate that is uncaring and negligent in its water use and indiscriminate in its consumption of natural resources? Of course not!

Are these a group of environmental ‘white knights’ whose sole goal is to save the planet? Of course not!

However, if you separate the fact from the emotion, Blair Atholl is one example of many estates that take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Blair Atholl does this not only because it is an environmentally responsible community, but also because managing the estate’s environment and its impact on resources helps to maintain asset values – all of which makes plain good business sense.

I would like to leave the final comments to Paul Marks the GM of Blair Atholl, and the immediate past chairman of the PGA of South Africa:

“I couldn’t agree more John with your comments about our not being able to communicate all the positives about the golf industry as effectively as we should.

You once remarked about our hitting the side of the drum, but in many instances I believe that we often miss it altogether!

I have worked at a number of clubs and estates, as you know, and without exception, especially over the past 15 years or so, there has been much greater awareness of how we maintain our courses and great efforts are made to scrutinise every aspect of our maintenance processes so as to minimise our impact on the environment.

At Blair Atholl, as is the case with many clubs and golf estates, we have an environmental committee whose job it is to look beyond the reactive initiatives such as reducing the amount of turf grass areas requiring extensive irrigation to what we can do proactively.

As you point out, all of these types of activities also make good business sense as many initiatives that are good for the environment can also effect savings on the bottom line in budget terms all of which sets up the perfect win-win scenario."

John Cockayne has been a Professional Golfer since 1977 and is a fully qualified founder member and Life Member of the PGA of South Africa. He is a former Head Professional at Royal Oak, State Mines and Benoni Country Clubs and Director of Golf at Southbroom, during which period he was involved in the organisation of golf tours, numerous professional and amateur tournaments and as a consultant on the Sunshine Circuit.