In today’s blog, Marie Athorn, Business Conservation Adviser at the RSPB talks about how the RSPB is working with the golf industry to help tackle the nature and climate emergencies. Over the summer the UK hosted a series of global golfing events and Marie had some fantastic opportunities to talk to a wide audience about encouraging biodiversity across these green spaces all over the UK. 

The RSPB and The R&A (The Royal and Ancient, one of golf’s governing bodies) partnered up in early 2020, with the aim of encouraging and supporting the golf industry to manage golf courses and the land they own with nature and climate in mind.

At the RSPB we know nature reserves aren’t enough to help nature recover alone, we need your support and the support of landowners across the UK. If you haven’t had a chance to read our blog post from earlier this year on how we work with lots of different landowners and managers check it out here.

Heather in flower throughout the dune grasslands at the Old Course, St Andrews © David Cannon, Getty Images.

Contributing to nature conservation
With over 3,000 golf courses in the UK, making up around 126,000 ha of greenspace, golf courses are well placed to help provide for wildlife and provide connectivity between existing habitats. This means that the contribution golf courses can make to nature conservation is not just on a local scale on their own site, they have the potential to contribute on a wider scale as pockets of greenspace across the landscape.

Flourishing kidney vetch at Dundonald Links that supports the small blue butterfly, part of the wider landscape scale Nectar Network along the Ayrshire coast. © Amanda Dorans.   

Golf courses around the UK are already known to support some of our fastest declining species like Willow Tits and Turtle Doves. And many are contributing to landscape scale conservation projects involving species like the Small Blue butterfly and the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.

Golf courses have also been involved in the reintroduction of some of our rarest reptiles: Sand Lizard and Smooth Snake.

There is also some anecdotal evidence that wildlife may use golf courses as greenspace stepping stones. One of the British Trust for Ornithology's GPS-tagged Cuckoos used golf courses around the city of London as he returned to his breeding site on a nature reserve in Suffolk in spring.

Working with golf courses, we have the opportunity to create a network of greenspaces that can be enhanced to support wildlife.

Demonstrating what's possible
Much of the work I do as part of the partnership between the RSPB and The R&A is about demonstrating the practical steps that courses can take to support nature. This involves creating resources to show how habitats like heathland and grassland can be managed with nature and golf in mind. I’ve also been creating resources for greenkeepers about how to make nature-friendly features such as bird and bat boxes. And I’m also involved in projects that are enhancing golf courses for specific species, such as willow tits. It is inspiring to be able to work with greenkeepers who are so keen to make a difference for nature

Numerous golf courses are already delivering for conservation and celebrating their efforts is an important aspect of our partnership. We’re working to share case studies to show what people are already doing and how others can do the same or similar, no matter the conditions. We are building case studies from golf clubs that have a single greenkeeper to those that have 20 and from clay soils to sandy soils and those that are designed for beginners to professionals and everything in between. This way we can encourage others to take inspiration from courses that have similar resources, soil conditions and playability.

Orchids and Kidney Vetch in full bloom around a golf green at Durness Golf Club. © Alistair Morrison.

But what about inspiring golfers to become more connected with nature? At the end of the day, golfers are the client of a golf course business and they want to play a fun and challenging golf course first and foremost. Throughout the partnership I have spoken to many golfers who talk of their enjoyment of connecting with nature whilst out on the golf course and I’m starting to see a rise in the number of golf clubs that have wildlife sightings boards and nature newsletters.

Championing nature at major championships
So how do we connect with large audiences of golfers through the partnership? The men’s major golf championships get huge followings around the world. One of those major championships is hosted in the UK by The R&A - The Open. This year, it was the 150th hosting of the event, at St Andrews in Fife. Nearly 300,000 people from all over the globe came to watch the best players in the world, while millions watched on TV.

Through the partnership with The R&A, I had the opportunity to attend The Open and to talk to some of the many thousands of visitors about golf, nature and how the industry can make a difference. I spent the week of The Open bringing the conversation about climate and biodiversity crises to a global sporting stage, talking to the public, patrons and even working with Sky TV to broadcast throughout the championship to a global audience.

At The Open, the Women’s Open and other championships throughout summer 2022, Sky TV interspersed the golf coverage with various segments on climate change, sustainability and nature on golf courses. The RSPB and R&A partnership featured in the coverage and I spoke about nature on golf courses – the enjoyment it can bring, the compatibility with the game of golf and the huge positive impact it could have if all golf courses were managed with nature and climate in mind.

With over four million people a year playing golf in the UK, imagine if the partnership can start to influence those people to act for nature on their golf course but also in their back gardens and communities. This is why these opportunities with a broadcaster like Sky were so invaluable through the championship season.

Marie Athorn and David Garrido filming for Sky Sports News at St Andrews Links – talking about golf, nature and climate change. © Rod Williams.

Landscapes for nature
Aerial views are a common sight at any televised golf event, showing the whole golf course and the land they own. These bird's eye view shots really demonstrate the extent and potential of golf courses.

Often golf courses in the UK own land including important habitats outside that managed for golf: woodland, wetland, heathland, dune grassland are just some examples. On average around 60% of a golf course in the UK is thought to consist of these natural habitats. This adds up to approximately 75,000 ha – an area larger than Exmoor National Park! Through working with greenkeepers we have the potential to create and enhance important habitats across the country, thanks to our partnership with the R&A.

For any golfers or greenkeepers reading this blog and wanting to do more for nature, the partnership is here to support you so please do get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @marieathorngolf or drop an email to

Working in partnership
The RSPB Sector Advice team works with a range of partners who are committed to making their businesses and sectors more sustainable with a focus on supporting nature wherever possible. Check them all out here.

The RSPB and The R&A partnership is funded by The R&A and supported by a range of organisations across the golf industry. The contributions they make are an important part of the partnership’s success.

Continue reading
Enhancing urban nature: how we’re helping to deliver liveable, sustainable towns and cities
Helping to reverse the nature crisis by supporting and advising business landowners and managers
Action for Nature – sharing our stories

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