The crowd goes wild when sports clubs bring nature off the bench

A row of apple trees defends the middle boundary of the wicket at Whalley Range cricket club in south Manchester, while old lime trees with bird feeders and nesting boxes look out from the other end of the ground. A lone herring gull prowls the gardens, while a noisy flock of starlings perch on the docks. In one corner of the ground a mound of grass clippings is slowly left to rot, the perfect habitat for snakes, although club president Mike Hill confesses he has been reluctant to check to see if any have moved there.

Last year the club won the inaugural UK Greenest Ground award from Cricketer magazine for its work promoting biodiversity. Badgers, hedgehogs and foxes are regular visitors and, with the help of the Woodland Trust, the grounds have more than 200 trees, from a young horse chestnut tree to a mature Manchester poplar (also known as the black downy poplar), which provide shade. to the score box.

The club stopped using pesticides, installed quick boxes under the eaves of the clubhouse, and installed solar panels on the roof. Vegetables are grown in large wooden pots and there are plans to do away with plastic entirely.

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

Across the UK, sports clubs are beginning to do their part for biodiversity, giving up the need to trim and tidy up, and allowing nature to take control. Even golf courses, for years dubbed “green deserts” by conservationists, are changing.

James Hutchinson, membership services manager for ecology and sustainability at the British and International Association of Golf Greenkeepers, recalls the widespread spraying of pesticides in the 1980s. “I remember thinking back then, you’re killing everything just to have a golf course. I play golf,” he says.

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

Many pesticides are now banned, so clubs have to find alternatives, says Hutchinson. For example, leather jackets, the larvae of the crane fly, are a real problem in the streets, since they eat the roots of the grass. Badgers and ravens seek out leather jackets, causing more trouble. So several clubs have installed starling nest boxes to encourage the birds to enter the fields because their thin beaks can catch the insects without damaging the grass.

Golf even has its own environmental awards and this year’s winners included Newquay Golf Club, where a rough ecological management plan has seen wildflowers like cransbill, scabious and knapweed flourish and provide food for pollinators like the dark green fritillary. and the six-point pimpernel. moth. Weybrook Park Golf Club near Basingstoke has introduced lark protection areas, cordoned-off areas that members are happy to give up to ground-nesting birds.

Water is the next big problem for clubs. “A number of fields may still be using grid irrigation, but they are a dying breed,” says Hutchinson, who is working with clubs to drill wells and create rainwater reservoirs to meet their irrigation needs, as well as growing smaller types. drought tolerant. of grass

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

The network’s coordinator, Lynne Bates, is visiting clubs along the coast and supplying flower seeds that can help create a continuous corridor, connecting fields with local nature reserves. The project is already making an impact, he says, with the little blue returning to Ayrshire for the first time since the 1980s. Britain’s tiniest butterfly needs pea for its caterpillars, and the plant is now abundant in many Scottish fields. and other UK coastal courses.

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

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

Not everyone is convinced that the changes taking place on some golf courses are enough. Green Party colleague Natalie Bennett says: “The kind of [biodiverse-friendly] the things they’re doing are on a very small scale and you still have fairways and greens that are a hugely destructive use of the land.”

Pesticides, energy use and constant mowing have a huge environmental impact, she says. “I’m not saying close all the golf courses in the country, but I think we need to look at land use … and that would mean, very clearly, fewer golf courses and the land being put to better social use and environmental”.

Other sports clubs are also reassessing their relationship with nature. The Northfield bowling club in Ayr is part of the Nectar network and gardener Kieron Gallagher has created a wildflower meadow in a shaded area of ​​grass behind the main stand. In addition to removing old grass, he has planted yellow rattlesnake, nicknamed the meadow maker, a semi-parasitic plant that takes advantage of grass roots, weakening it and allowing other wildflowers to take hold.

Related: On the brink: A quiet revolution on the road is driving wildflowers

Plants such as eyebright and bartsia play a similar role and are increasingly used by keepers to thin out leafy grasslands, where aggressive species such as Yorkshire fog and meadow grass have taken over.

In addition, traditional roses have been uprooted to make way for another swath of wildflowers, and the new beds will provide pollen, nectar and a habitat for other insects, Bates says. “It’s a domino effect, so those insects that come in will be food for the birds. You need the little things in the background to feed everything else.”

The Girvan football club has also joined in, transforming the entrance to their pitch with a sensory garden, complete with fruit trees that attract pollinators. “He’s trying to show how sport and nature can coexist,” says Bates.

Separately, Gloucester Rugby Club has teamed up with the local Wildlife Trust to install three rainwater gardens at its Kingsholm Stadium. Using shallow depressions and raised planters, the gardens capture rain that would normally flow into storm drains. By storing and filtering water, gardens can reduce flooding and prevent pollutants from entering rivers.

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

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