The rising sea levels and frequent storms brought on by the global climate emergency have accelerated coastal erosion. As such, many of the UK’s most iconic links golf courses are under threat. St Andrews, Montrose, Royal North Devon, Royal Aberdeen, Abersoch – the list goes on.
So, how do golf courses stop coastal erosion? We speak to Tom Mackenzie of international golf course architects, Mackenzie & Ebert, to find out how serious the threat of coastal erosion is to links courses in the UK.
How much of an impact is coastal erosion having?
It’s nothing new. I’ve been in the business for 31 years and it’s always been a matter of debate. Some clubs are losing ground, but others are gaining ground as well. These rising sea levels are something that cannot be underestimated and it’s definitely going to become more of an issue over time.
Will some golf courses simply succumb to Mother Nature?
Some courses are really low lying and flat, so if sea levels rise as much as they’re predicted to, it’s hard to see a future for them. They’ll either be lost or they’ll be redesigned. Some action has to be taken, whether that’s coastal defence or rearranging the course so it moves away to give nature space.
The big question, then – what can, or is, being done to tackle coastal erosion?
Often, clubs look to put in some kind of hard coastal defence like rock armour. In some cases that’s not allowed and you have to plan for retreat. It can be quite complicated. A lot of clubs, over time, have put in rock armour, which has been effective in some areas but not others. These are the rocks you see piled up against the base of dunes to try and dissipate some of the energy from the waves coming in.
It’s very expensive. On protected coasts, clubs are finding it very difficult to get permission to put it in. There’s a company that’s doing some research on a softer version of coastal defence. Rather than using rock, they’re putting in micropiles and then strapping bundles of brash from forestry to create a type of permeable, biodegradable barrier that sand can back up against and allow the marram to colonise and grow into. That’s still very much in the research stage and they are involved in The R&A’s Golf Course Strategy 2030 Project.
Are some areas of the UK more vulnerable than others?
The courses on the east coast of Scotland and England, as well as those which are more north facing, are always susceptible when you get those big low pressures in the North Sea and the northeasterly gales. When that ties in with the spring tides, those coasts can get damaged really quickly. There are courses all the way down the east coast that have been hit with those kinds of circumstances.
Then you have the likes of Royal North Devon, which is completely exposed to the southwest and there’s nothing between there and North America. If courses like this get a series of storms, they’re very susceptible. So much ties into the pattern of the moon as well. If you’ve got high spring tides when these big storms come in, they’re a lot more susceptible to damage than when it’s low tide.
Links courses vary enormously from one end of the country to the other. Some links courses are very narrow strips, then you have Royal Lytham & St Annes, which is completely surrounded by houses – they haven’t got a problem. Some can afford to plan and be ready to move away if they need to, while others are almost looking down the barrel of the gun wondering when the bullet’s going to be fired.
We’re advising links courses from the east coast of Scotland to the southwest coast of England, and from Kent to the west coast of Ireland. They’ve all got very different coastal issues.
Does this mean we shouldn’t expect to see any new links courses being designed in the UK?
These things get built into a long-term plan. Part of the planning process for any new course involves addressing climate change and sea level rise. You have to demonstrate that you’ve considered it.