Gorse; friend or foe?

Gorse; friend or foe?


This article is a collaboration between John Nicholson Associates and FineGolf  and part of a Conservation series.

John Nicholson, having worked in golf for nearly 30 years as the leading independent consultant on habitat and landscape management, it interests him that certain plants become fashionable and the recommended advice for them changes often radically as the years go by. Plant a tree in ‘73, plant some more in ‘74, then a few years later the dreaded cypress and poplar became the fashion, being both quick growing and cheap!

gorse, john nicholson

Heathland with invasive gorse.

Gorse followed a slightly different path as it was originally introduced on poor agricultural land to increase productivity. Golf historically was played on the links and then developed on to the heaths once architects like Harry Colt had identified the similarity in the two ecosystems where low fertility and free draining soils favoured the fine perennial grasses the best surface for golf.

The same heathland only three years later.

This meant that such courses were often bounded by gorse and therefore vulnerable to invasion. Landscapes evolve often undetected by those who view them on a regular basis and gorse is very good at sneaking up on you! It also became fashionable to plant gorse and it does have advantages; it is robust, flowers for a long period in winter,  when other plants are dormant and provides an evergreen screen.

It is also surprising that many people cannot accept that change has even occurred. John has many times been told that a plant has not grown in size when if you think logically the only time a plant does not grow is when it is dead! A member once announced at a presentation “I have been a member for 40 years and the trees are the same as when I joined.”

Gorse can also conflict with strategic design as it causes lost balls and slow play and removes any chance of recovery.


Both Harry Colt and Dr Alistair Mackenzie, two of the most respected golf course architects, shared the same opinion:

“Gorse and water share the disadvantage that it is practically impossible to play out of them and they are a frequent cause of lost balls. It would appear, therefore, that that they should not be used to any great extent as hazards.”

“The characteristics of a hazard are that it should be difficult but not impossible to play out of; that it should not cause lost balls; and that strokes played out of it should be calculable as regards strength and direction, and should depend for their success on skill and not brute force alone.”
(H S Colt, Essays on Golf-Course Architecture, 1920)

“There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.”
(Alistair Mackenzie, Golf Architecture, 1920)

Ulex Europeaus

Ulex Europeaus

The golf courses of the UK are colonised by three types of gorse, the most being common gorse Ulex Europaeus which was imported in the 18th century to plant on poor quality agricultural land. The new growth was harvested and made into a porridge to feed livestock as it was nitrogen rich. It is also the largest species, reaching 2–3 metres.
Common gorse flowers in late autumn and through the winter, coming into flower most strongly in spring. Interestingly it was declared a noxious weed over 100 years ago in Australia and New Zealand!

Ules Galli

The second type of gorse which is native is western or welsh gorse Ulex Gallii. This as its name suggests is found predominantly in the west of the country. It is smaller in size but can still grow to a height of 2 metres. It flowers in late summer and autumn. It can be identified by its smaller softer thorns than common gorse.

Common and western gorse are invasive plants that as a legume naturally fix nitrogen from the atmosphere causing enrichment of the soil. It spreads rapidly through seed and will regenerate vigorously. Gorse can fire its seeds up to ten metres from the mother plant. In a golf course situation its rapid growth causes invasion problems as it thorny spines are avoided when mowing. The plant will invade the unmown area and once established will then force the mowers wider still. This invasion can be quite rapid as gorse can grow up to three feet per annum. Both varieties are also tolerant of fire.

Ulex Minor

Ulex Minor and Erica Cinerea

The less problematic of the gorse family is dwarf gorse or dwarf furze Ulex Minor which is less widespread and native to lowland heaths. It grows normally to a height of around 10 inches and is often found within heather beds and adds to the diversity of the heath. It has softer short spines that allow the plant to be grazed by herbivores and does not cause the same threat to the sustainability of heathland or acid grassland as common and western gorse.

The two more common plants (European and Western) form a significant threat to heath and infertile grassland. A major management programme is necessary in order to safeguard such habitats. Once this is complete it will be necessary to control future regeneration before it establishes and forms a seed source.

From an agronomic perspective gorse can have a damaging effect  as it fixes nitrogen..

from the atmosphere and transfers it into the soil creating an ecosystem that is more favourable to the broadleaf weed grasses such as Yorkshire fog and rye grass and hinders the fine grasses.  This provides a seed source that will spread to adjoining areas and as the areas of gorse themselves enlarge the weed grass invasion proliferates.

Gorse needs to be contained in order to protect the agronomics and ecology of any golf course.

Coppacing gorse

Control in itself is labour intensive as to manage gorse correctly it should be coppiced to ground level on a five-year rotation and it is often best to place some demarcation stakes on the edge of the stand of gorse to be contained as encroachment often goes unnoticed.

If gorse is to be removed and future regeneration controlled then the best method is to grub out the plant, being sure to break the tap root and then burn the resultant cuttings. The enriched top soil will then need to be scraped back to the mineral layer and the arisings either removed from site or buried deep down to stop the seed germinating. Simply cutting or flailing only encourages new growth. The seed bed must be removed and even then, some regeneration will still occur.

Gorse is also a great habitat for rabbits so beware, if rabbits are a problem then you can compound the situation with stands of gorse.

Gorse has its place in the landscape but careful consideration needs to be taken as to its location and on how to contain it.


Sea buckthorn causes similar problems and though less widespread is still a threat on a few links courses and does not even have any of the redeeming features that gorse provides. Further, it regenerates through suckering as well as seed and therefore it is very difficult to control its spread. Its new shoots are very robust and virtually impossible to mow. (Burnham & Berrow is an example of good buckthorn removal)

Gorse pros:
         Establishes easily
         Spreads rapidly
         Flowers in winter
         Evergreen
         Good screening
         Robust plant
         Tolerant of salt
         Good boundary protection from intruders

         Fixes nitrogen into the soil
         Creates rabbit warren
         Difficult to contain
         Requires management
         Difficult and expensive to remove
         Invasive
         Readily consumes golf balls


FineGolf  adds some comments on courses with gorse:

Royal Dornoch, a course well known for its hillsides of gorse, has decided to change the lay-out of its seventh hole whose present fairway runs between two ramparts of common gorse that hide what could be  a glorious view of the Dornoch Firth. The plan is over the next four years to move the much praised green complex with its angular front swale and exactly replicate it on to the point of the escarpment, with the gorse eradicated on the seaward side of the hole.

Dornoch’s present seventh hole in a tunnel of yellow gorse.

The hidden issue, which is the most important thing to achieve, is not only to grub out all the gorse roots but to also make sure none of the present soil around the gorse roots is left, since it will be high in nitrogen and therefore not supportive of a fescue grassed fairway which of course is the desired objective. Work has started this winter and Eoin Riddell, the course manager, says all of the gorse mulch will be removed plus some of the layer beneath. The area will then be sand capped before the healthy root zone for the new fairway is put down prior to seeding or turfing.

This will be the first major change to the feel of this historical course that has recently been climbing the world rankings (Golf Digest has it now as No2 in the world outside of the U.S.A.), since holes seven to eleven were created after the Second World War (they were designed by Aberdeenshire’s 1920 Open Champion George Duncan).

The change to the seventh hole will also allow the drive on the eighth hole to be changed with the objective that rather than playing the majority of approach shots to the green from below, they will in future be played from the top of the escarpment down to the bowl-shaped green. These are clever design changes by Mackenzie Ebert while the in-house team who are doing the work are confident the new fairways will be of fine, running fescues.


Removing gorse from recently established heather at Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh is also famous for both its extensive gorse with tunnelled fairways as well as its fescue dominant greens. There has been a major programme of cutting back the gorse in recent years, just as there has been at Gailes Links (previously called Glasgow Gailes), Delamere Forest , Royal Porthcawl, Ganton, Notts/Hollinwell  and North Hants; all seven of these running-golf courses have been much improved with this opening-up.

Powfoot’s par three sixth hole

Nevertheless at other courses, for example at Powfoot (redesigned by James Braid in the 1920s) and near the wonderful, running, fescue dominant course at Southerness, both on the northern side of the Solway Firth and looking across at exquisite Silloth, my recollection is that some of the finest holes are the ones surrounded by gorse in the middle of the course, giving it its defining character, although the extensive gorse does eat golf balls particularly in the wind!

Gorse planting at Northamptonshire County near iconic ironstone clubhouse

Northamptonshire County, a 1909 Harry Colt classically designed heathland course, lies today at the boundary between being  heathland or parkland, with its parkland style re-furbished bunkers and with many self-seeded deciduous trees. It went through a period some twenty-five years ago when extra gorse was added to increase its heathland character. After a more recent period of management stagnation, the course is now under new management with an objective of returning to a fully running-heathland. The gorse that had been allowed to get woody is being managed, some trees are being removed, two infinity greens have been created, run-offs from greens are being firmed up and an over-seeding with fine grasses programme started, all as part of this new heathland style approach. The reward is the hosting of regional Open Championship Qualifying from 2018, awarded by The R&A.