In Safe HandsIpswich Golf Club, also known as Purdis Heath, is one of those excellent golf clubs which, once seen, you think, â€œIf I lived around here, Iâ€™d love to be a member of that placeâ€. A James Braid designed heathland course with all the attributes you associate with that genre â€“ attractive, natural surroundings, a well appointed clubhouse and everything run with friendly efficiency.
But the thing about Purdis which marks it out from every other golf club in the country, and demonstrates an approach to the custodianship of the land in their care which is exceptional, is the fact that Neil Sherman and Mike Dickens, two of Course Manager Norman Fenwickâ€™s highly motivated team of eight, are qualified conservation officers. There are some who feel that this is an extravagance and sheer indulgence on the part of the golf club, but Norman Fenwick uses the resources which Neil and Mike bring to great effect. After all, many clubs employ mechanics for their specialist knowledge!
Purdis Heath carries out a total area programme which embraces all aspects of the clubâ€™s land. Norman, who has been at the club for just over four years, feels that programmes for turf quality and conservation overlap so much that there is not a dividing line between them.
As part of the successful team, General Manager, Neill Ellice and Chairman of Green, Brian Laws, both have significant input into the clubâ€™s land management policy. As an indication of success, Purdis Heath is the only club to have won the BIGGA golf environment award twice â€“ becoming the first ever winners in its guise as the Amazone Golf Environment Award in 1995, and then again in 2002.
The benefits are there to be seen with a huge variety of flora and fauna, including rare butterflies, birds, lizards, deer, foxes and a white squirrel who has made one area of the course home. The impetus for a more environmentally aware golf club came in the 1980â€™s with a group of Committee members who fostered a real interest in the subject. One of them, Ron Squirrell, a Past Captain and President of the club, has a nature trail named after him.
At that time, Neil Sherman became the first Conservation Officer, arriving initially as part of his Otley College work placement, and working one-day a week, then two. He became full time when Norman arrived as Course Manager and then, three years ago, Mike Dickens, who was a mature student also at Otley College, joined the staff, bringing the complement up to eight.
â€œBringing in Mike as a second Conservation Officer was a bigger step than taking on Neil full time, but the work that we have done has proved the benefits of doing it,â€ said Norman, who introduces a northernerâ€™s common sense approach to all that he does.
The key question, though, must be, â€œWhat does a Conservation Officer bring to the table that a greenkeeper with an interest in the environment doesnâ€™t?â€ It is one which Norman is well qualified to answer.
â€œThe biggest benefit you get is the specialist knowledge. As greenkeepers, we would know what to do when it comes to woodland management, but Neil and Mike have the knowledge to do that and how to take it forward to the next stage. It is not just woodland management but looking after the whole site so that it enhances the golf course,â€ said Norman.
The point is reinforced by Neil Sherman.
â€œYou need to have the vision of what you want in an area and decide what will work and look appropriate. You have to plan ahead and, with heathland, that means looking at the soil and checking if it will be adequate for Heather or Gorse to grow,â€ he said.
On Normanâ€™s arrival at Purdis Heath, he and Neil, with support from Neill Ellice and Brian Laws, produced a five year plan to cover all aspects of maintenance from greens to ponds. The plan was important as a means of identifying the full diversity of habitat within the boundaries of Purdis, which supports acid grassland, heath, dry woodland, wet woodland, fens, woodland trails, rides (vistas) reed beds and ponds. This plan is updated on an annual basis.
Another project undertaken on the site is an extensive nest box programme for both birds and bats. Over 120 bird boxes have been erected around the course with most occupied every year. The bat population around the clubâ€™s lakes is very good, with the Countyâ€™s largest known colony of Noctule bats (Britainâ€™s biggest species) located at Purdis Heath.
One of the main thrusts when Norman arrived was to improve airflow and reduce shade problems by canopy raising and scrub clearance.
â€œThis has had a massive impact on all playing surfaces.â€
An example of this was the work which was done on the beautiful par 3 15th in removing the rhododendrons which had encroached to within three feet of the putting surface. Removing them vastly improved the quality of the green which had previously been extremely damp. It has also exposed James Braidâ€™s original landscaped contours around this green and restored its original character.
Having spent 10 years at the club, Neil Sherman has seen some of the projects come to maturity and around the course there can now be seen stands of Heather and Gorse at differing heights and stages of growth.
â€œI know in my mind that it takes time but always with these projects you want them to happen quicker. Itâ€™s a case of having the vision in my head as to what will happen, and then waiting.â€
The work has been aided by success in the Environment Competitions with two polytunnels purchased after the first win which are used to grow Gorse and Broom in one and Heather stocks in the other.
â€œWe use our home grown Heather stocks in small areas, like mounds in the centre of bunkers, otherwise weâ€™d use our plants up too quickly on large areas. On those bigger sites we use the natural seed bank and also brashing material â€“ the clippings from heather which weâ€™ve already got around the course. We mow areas of heather as part of our annual maintenance and the material collected is then reused on the golf course so there is no wastage at all,â€ explained Neil Sherman.
They also employ trial plots out on the course to identify which techniques are best for each area.
â€œWe have tried using grasses, plain brashings and sieved material to get purer seed to use. The technique that might work best is dependent upon the soil in a particular area and the climate as well, which means we donâ€™t always get much re-growth of heather straight away. You know the seed is in there and it will come when conditions are right,â€ said Neil.
Purdis Heath is more than just a heathland golf course with areas of woodland and wetland as well, but each area is treated with the same amount of care by the team. The club owns a 250 acre site and, away from the playing surfaces, they use the additional land constructively.
â€œWeâ€™ve created a new path through the woodlands and around our lakes and wetlands and worked on a new section of woodland to create features for people to look at as they walk. Among these is an area of hazel coppice which is part of the historic management of the site. Traditionally, the hazel was used to create hurdles for purposes of screening around the old duck decoy pond in the centre of the woods,â€ explained Neil.
Neill Ellice is a man who gives 100% support to the work of Norman, Neil Sherman and the team.
â€œThe members are starting to see the benefits and have done so over the last year. These projects are not short term and the danger is that most golfers want a quick fix and instant results, and certainly it took some brave Committee decisions to go down the route we chose,â€ said Neill.
â€œThe important thing was that Norman was able to put his vision across to the Club Committee. Having been on The Committee myself eight years before becoming General Manager, I can remember years of arguments about an odd tree here and a bough there. Norman convinced the Committee that the long term vision was certainly worth trying to attain, and he was able to explain quite lucidly how to go about that.â€
But as everyone knows, convincing the Committee doesnâ€™t mean the job is done.
â€œOnce the Committee was on board, half the battle was won, the second half was taking the membership forward and this is where the education process has had to come in,â€ added Neill.
With that in mind, the club has produced a range of different methods of getting information to the membership.
â€œWe have course walks with Neil and Norman, open events at which members can, for example, come down and see the equipment theyâ€™ve seen out on the course, how it works and what it is used for. We keep them up-dated with a quarterly Newsletter which includes a question and answer session between Brian Laws, and Norman, in which they explain some of the complicated techniques which are used out on the course,â€ said Neill.
Brian also reinforced the point.
â€œGetting the message across is still a bit of a slog and it is often only read by the people who know anyway, but weâ€™re no longer getting the comment â€˜Whatâ€™s it got to do with golf?â€™ that we got on the early days,â€ said Brian, who has been Chairman of Green for three years.
Norman also has strong views about the matter of getting the message across. â€œWeâ€™re not confrontational when it comes to communication. We just talk about the issues, but one of the problems is that people get emotional about it instead of just looking at the facts. My biggest benefit is that Iâ€™ve actually done it, so I can say, if you do it this way, that will happen in two or three years time or, if you do it another way, this will happen. My main objective when I first moved here was to ensure that everything we did was sustainable,â€ said Norman, who is delighted that he enjoys an excellent relationship with Neill and Brian.
â€œThe General Manager is pivotal because he has to field the awkward questions from members. If he doesnâ€™t like fielding such questions, perhaps because the answer isnâ€™t what the questioner want to hear, it can become difficult. Neill can answer those questions but another Secretary/General Manager might not be quite so strong and pressure can then be exerted on the Course Manager. That is when things can start to crumble a bit.â€
Norman has nothing but praise for the work of his team and feels that they are in a win win situation, as are the club members. â€œIn the event that any of the conservation work did not produce 100% of the desired results, then the worst case scenario would be production of increased areas of acid grassland, while the shade, airflow and root invasion problems would also be improved,â€ said Norman, with Neill and Brian nodding in agreement.
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