Sports clubs in the UK are boosting biodiversity by letting nature run wild on their grounds

A row of apple trees defends the mid-wicket boundary at Whalley Range Cricket Club in South Manchester, while ancient lime trees with bird feeders and nest boxes look on from the end of the ground. A solitary herring gull wanders in the open field, while a noisy flock of starlings settles in the slips. In one corner of the ground, a pile of grass clippings is slowly rotting, the perfect habitat for grass snakes, although club manager Mike Hill admits he has been reluctant to check to see if any have moved in.

Last year the club won Cricketer magazine’s first UK Greenest Ground award for its work in encouraging biodiversity. Badgers, hedgehogs and foxes are all regular visitors and, with a little help from the Woodland Trust, the ground has more than 200 trees, from a horse chestnut to a mature Manchester poplar (also known as the black down poplar), shading the score box.

The club has stopped using pesticides, installed swift boxes under the eaves of the clubhouse and solar panels on the roof. Vegetables are grown in large wooden planters and there are plans to become completely plastic-free.

“The neighbors love it,” says Hill. “You will spend time here with the color and the calm.” As a sport, he says, cricket is more vulnerable than most to the weather, and last year the club had to irrigate the square in April, but saw fixtures regularly washed out in June. “Climate change is very evident when you play cricket,” he says.

Across the UK, sports clubs are starting to do their bit for biodiversity, ditching the urge to cut and clear and letting nature take over. Even golf courses, for years called “green deserts” by conservationists, are changing.

James Hutchinson, head of member services for ecology and sustainability at the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, remembers the widespread spraying of pesticides in the 1980s. “I remember thinking you kill everything just to have a golf course,” he says.

The UK has around 3,000 registered golf courses, many of which border important biodiversity hotspots such as sand dunes, heather and chalk downlands. Hutchinson’s job is to help these clubs manage their courses more naturally.

Many pesticides are now banned, so the clubs have to find alternatives, says Hutchinson. For example, leatherjackets – crane fly larvae – are a real problem on fairways as they eat the roots of the grass. Badgers and crows search for the leather jackets, which creates more problems. So several clubs have installed starling nest boxes to encourage the birds to the course because their slender beaks can grab the insects without damaging the turf.

Golf even has its own environmental awards, and this year’s winners included Newquay Golf Club, where an ecologically sound management plan has seen wildflowers such as crane’s bill, scab and sedge flourish and provide food for pollinators such as the dark green fritillary and six-spotted burnet. moth. Weybrook Park Golf Club, near Basingstoke, has introduced Skylark Conservation Areas, cordoned off zones which members have been happy to hand over to the ground-nesting bird.

Water is the next big problem for clubs. “A number of courses may still use mains irrigation, but they’re a dying breed,” says Hutchinson, who works with clubs to drill boreholes and create rainwater reservoirs to meet their irrigation needs, as well as growing more drought-tolerant types of grass.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has been working with clubs and golf charity the FairWays Foundation, which is co-funding the Irvine to Girvan Nectar Network, a project to bring wildflower meadows back to the Ayrshire coast.

Network co-ordinator Lynne Bates visits clubs along the coast and supplies flower seeds that can help create one continuous corridor, linking the courses with local nature reserves. The project has already gained traction, she says, with the return of the little blue to Ayrshire for the first time since the 1980s. Britain’s most diminutive butterfly needs kidney vetch for its larvae and the plant is now abundant on many courses in Scotland and other UK coastal courses.

“Just adjusting the management of an area can make a big difference,” says Bates. “Let it get a little messy because it’s the long, slightly overgrown, slightly wild-looking areas that the wildlife likes.”

Flat sand bunkers, with at least one edge uncut, are “invertebrate sun traps,” she says, recalling how a greenkeeper recently tweeted that solitary miner bees had taken up residence in one of his bunkers. Not long ago they would have been seen as a pest.

Not everyone is convinced that the changes some golf courses are making are enough. Green party colleague Natalie Bennett says: “That sort of thing [biodiverse-friendly] things they do are on a very small scale and you still have fairways and greens which is a hugely destructive use of land.”

Sprays, energy use and constant mowing all have a huge environmental impact, she says. “I’m not saying that every golf course in the country should be closed, but I think we need to look at land use … and that will clearly mean fewer golf courses, and land being used for better social and environmental uses.”

Other sports teams are also reassessing their relationship with nature. Northfield Bowling Club in Ayr is part of the Nectar Network and founder Kieron Gallagher has created a wildflower meadow on a shaded grassy area behind the main stand. As well as removing the old sod, he has planted yellow rattle, called the meadow maker, a semi-parasitic plant that taps into the roots of the grass, weakening it and allowing other wildflowers to take over.

Related: On the border: a quiet revolution by the roadside increases the wildflowers

Plants such as eyebright and bartsia perform a similar role and are increasingly used by greenkeepers to thin out graded grassland, where rogue species such as yorkshire mist and meadow grass have taken over.

In addition, traditional roses were cleared to make room for another patch of wildflowers, and the new beds will provide pollen, nectar and a habitat for other insects, says Bates. “It’s a knock-on effect, so those insects that come in will be food for the birds. You need the little things on the bottom to feed everything else.”

Girvan Football Club have also joined in and transformed the entrance to their ground with a sensory garden, complete with fruit trees that attract pollinators. “It tries to show how sport and nature can live side by side,” says Bates.

Elsewhere, Gloucester rugby club has teamed up with the local wildlife association to install three rainwater gardens at Kingsholm stadium. By using shallow recesses and raised planters, the garden captures rain that would normally flow into drains. By storing and filtering the water, the gardens can reduce flooding and stop pollutants from entering rivers.

Back in Manchester, Hill points out the young hawthorn and blackthorn bushes that have pushed up through knee-high grass and clumps of scarlet. A five-foot-wide strip between the neighbors’ fences and the edge of the cricket field grows wild, and while it may be tempting to reach for a trimmer, he says, this area is home to butterflies and bees. “It might be a bit difficult to find a cricket ball,” he adds, “but it’s not the end of the world, unlike climate change.”

Find more age coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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