John Nicholson Associates, Britain’s leading independent habitat and golf landscape consultant, and FineGolf,  who have collaborated to write this article applaud the growing modern interest in trees and ecology on the golf course which should be encouraged. However, the old saying “a little knowledge is dangerous” is very apt in the case of environmental management.

We should all support the Queen’s brilliant Commonwealth ‘Tree canopy’ initiative, as the protection of trees worldwide is vital, nevertheless the issues are often clouded.  The chief confusion arises from the brainwashing of the public by radical groups of ‘tree-huggers’ whose policies would often destroy rather than protect the environment that they supposedly hold so dear.

Woodlands in Britain have been managed since the dark ages in one form or another and the words non-intervention management are a complete misnomer.




Therefore this third article, as part of a conservation series, is on trees and seeks to explain to golfers:

  1.  1)  The history of British trees and their influence on the landscape.
  2.  2)  How trees can add to or hinder the strategic design of a hole.
  3.  3)  How the original finest running-golf courses seldom used trees as hazards.
  4.  4)  How trees play a predominantly negative role in the agronomy of the finest golfing turf.
  5.  5)  How best to manage trees in parkland and woodland situations.


The History of Trees in the British Landscape 

In approximately 11,000BC, after the retreat of the last ice-sheet, much of Britain gradually became colonised by trees and without the constraints of grazing the country became almost completely covered in wildwood.

The country comprised of five main woodland types, the far north of Scotland being birch, below which, was what is now known as the Caledonian Pine Forest. Then, progressing south as far as the Humber, was a forest of oak and hazel. (This type of woodland also prevailed in the majority of Wales, Devon and Cornwall.) Further to the south, covering a significantly large area of Lowland England, were lime woods and to the southwest tip of Wales a forest of elm and hazel.

While some of the characteristics of these woodlands remain today many have changed mainly due to man’s intervention. From the Mesolithic Period human clearance of the ancient woodland began in the heathlands in order to provide grazing. The practice continued through the Neolithic, Bronze and early Iron Age.  It is thought that by 500BC half of England had ceased to be wildwood and that the lime woods had particularly suffered from the expansion of agriculture.

Growth on coppised stumps

As early as the Neolithic period coppicing was the key to woodland management, the re-growth of shoots being more useful than the original tree. Coppicing wildwood became an increasing practice but as man domesticated animals the practice of pollarding was adopted in order to raise the crop above browsing level.

The Doomsday Book (1086) accurately measured that 15% of England was woodland, compared with just over 5% by 1500. By 1086 almost all woodland in England was managed and by 1200 much of the modern landscape of the British countryside was already recognisable.  Nearly all today’s villages and hamlets existed then; the main areas of farmland, moorland and woodland were not markedly different from what they are now, even though the proportion of woodland was three times greater.

The early middle ages saw the extensive creation of private parklands. By 1300 it is estimated that there were around 3200 parks in England covering 2% of the country with roughly one park in every four parishes, and that they contained 25% of the country’s woodland.

Although the park tradition declined during the later middle ages, in the very latter years it was revived.  Henry VIII created seven parks including the present St. James and Hyde Parks and the two great parks at Hampton Court.

The parkland at Stowe School. Click to enlarge

A revival of the parkland landscape tradition occurred in the 18th century with the advent of professional landscape designers, William Kent (1684-1748), Lancelot (Capability) Brown (1716-1783) and Humphrey Repton (1752-1818).  Their schemes varied from formal gardens normally adjacent to the house, to the larger parkland landscapes for which they are commonly associated. These often involved enhancing the existing landscape with additions rather than radical transformation. Much of their work involved limited alterations to an existing landscape – removing an avenue, adding a lake, bisecting a wood to open up a vista and planting a belt of trees around the boundary.

Brancepeth Castle GC before and twelve years later


Although hedges and hedgerow trees were in evidence during the middle ages the open field-strip agriculture system formed the greater part of England’s landscape.  The enclosure acts of the 18th century saw a transformation of large tracts of the English countryside; between 1750 and 1850 probably about 200,000 miles of new hedgerows were planted at least equal to that of the previous 500 years.  Hedgerow trees thus became a major feature of the landscape and where these stood alone they showed off best their sentinel beauty.

One has to say that it is not particularly clever to use a misleading comparison and say it is ‘shocking’ that 6,000 years ago Britain was 75% trees and is now only 13% as the AGW alarmist BBC Springwatch programme quoted recently.

In summary, what is now considered the natural British landscape is in fact a landscape of man’s making and if we are to maintain what we have grown to love then management is essential to ensure sustainability.


Trees and Golfing Strategy.


There were few trees on the links, heathlands, downlands and moorlands where we find the finest original running-golf courses. Nevertheless, as the popularity of golf grew courses were also built on parklands and in woodlands among trees. Also, as the established courses on the more infertile heathland, downland, moorland and links stopped using management regimes such as burning and grazing, regeneration of trees established in areas forming scrub woodland. This then succeeded to high canopy woodland which in turn provided a source of seed for further colonisation.

How do all of these self-seeded trees affect the strategy of how to play the course?

When designing or managing woodlands on a golf course it is vital that consideration is given to the shape of the woodland edge in relation to the golfing strategy of hole design.

Trees can benefit the strategy of a golf hole in a number of ways. For example they can be used to frame a fairway, which cannot be seen due to the topography of the site and can emphasise a dogleg hole by exaggerating the orientation of the fairway or strategically to add interest by creating an heroic carry which, if negotiated successfully, will reward the player with a birdie opportunity.

Nevertheless, just to take one example, as trees have grown on the corner of the eighth hole at Woking, no longer can the corner be cut-off, even with modern equipment, to give the advantage of an easier second shot up the hill; all golfers are now are forced to play a similar tee shot.

Middlesborough GC before and after


Tees set into woods create the comforting feeling of seclusion or screen unsightly views. Woodlands can also coalesce making a fairway appear narrower than it actually is. Visual deception is a part of golf course architecture.

However, trees form a strong three-dimensional hazard, which can easily destroy the intended strategy of a hole if planted (or more often, if allowed to grow up) in the wrong place. Trees are a dynamic entity, increasing in size over time, often encroaching on to holes surreptitiously. Care must therefore be taken not to simply think that a tree is an appropriate replacement for other hazards such as bunkers, as the ability to play from behind an 80 foot–tall tree is somewhat limiting and therefore negates the skill element of the game. This is unlike the effect of a bunker, which allows the better player to expound his skills by playing an heroic shot. (On the other hand, such as at the eighteenth at the parkland Bromborough, large trees can enhance the strategic element of a hole, requiring a precise direction of shot from the tee to allow the possibility of reaching the green in regulation).

The drive at Walton Heath New’s 18th hole framed by trees without interference in the landing area

With all this in mind trees generally should not be planted adjoining landing areas but should be positioned between the landing area and the green in order to allow a recovery shot to be played by those who are capable.

Another common mistake made by clubs is to use trees to force a dogleg, when in fact the strategy laid out by the architect was to tempt players to take on an heroic carry. Although with modern technology the challenge may now be diluted, the use of trees in this situation is often incorrect as the same shot is forced upon players of whatever ability. Playing a 6-iron from a tee to a wide fairway because the dogleg has been artificially contrived is uninspiring for all categories of golfer and removes the core essence, which goes to make all good golf holes, namely the mental and physical challenge of deciding then executing the correct shot from the tee.

North Hants before and after


The basic understanding of golf course design is something which most golfers do not grasp or even take an interest in. Perhaps we all expect too much from the average member; after all he is there to get away from life’s toils and relax. Why should he get involved with an aspect of the game which he only has a passing interest in and which as we all know can be a political hot potato.

Perhaps Tom Simpson, one of the most creative golf course architects of the Golden Era (1900 to 1940) best summed up the true situation:

‘Most people appreciate and have some understanding of a lovely landscape, but not one golfer in a hundred knows a good hole when he sees it. He may like the hole or dislike it, but that has nothing to do with whether in fact it is good or bad.’

Dexter and friend on the fifth hole at Swinley showing two inappropriate new tree plantings.

One of his colleagues from that Golden Era used the beauty of trees to frame the fairways of one of his favourite heathland courses, without the trees actually coming into play. Harry Colt took out 14,000 trees when building Swinley Forest through the Crown Estate forest near Ascot in 1908 and the dense lines of Scots pine merely give a backdrop to the heather roughs while not interfering with the heathland running-golf. The Club has recently taken out extensive areas of encroaching rhodedendron and trees and this action should be applauded, though somehow, perhaps a captain was trying to enhance his ego, two trees have been inappropriately planted, one can only reason ‘for prettiness’, in the left rough of the fifth hole. The beauty of heathland golf courses comes from conservationist ecology.

Trees and the Golf Course


Woodlands will regenerate either on their edges or within naturally-formed clearings in the forest. Woodlands will therefore readily invade areas of un-mown rough or, on heathland courses, the heather, in order to reproduce. It is therefore essential to have a management regime in place to control the spread of regeneration into areas where it is undesirable.


Even links courses will suffer invasion if correct management prescriptions are not in place and hawthorn or birch in particular will normally be the first pioneers by the coast. However in certain areas introduced species such as White Poplar and Sea Buckthorn are major problems, especially as they reproduce through suckering from their roots. They will even attempt to invade the putting surface as witnessed at Royal Lytham & St Annes and Seacroft. The Burnham & Berrow course has successfully rid itself of the buckthorn that plagued it for many years.

These species also have the intrinsic problem that when trying to remove them any vegetative material, however small, which is left within the soil will attempt to produce a new plant. It is therefore necessary after removal to implement a programme of weed control for any suckers which might appear.

Unfortunately, since the old green keeping practice of burning the rough or heather in the autumn became unacceptable no alternative prescription has been adopted, allowing regeneration to enter such areas. This has had a devastating effect on the landscape of those courses which were once open terrain, with commons, moors and heaths becoming woodland.

The problem is compounded as many of today’s club memberships are unaware of the true character of the course and subscribe to the current misinformed but widespread view that no tree should ever be removed!

Royal Blackheath clubhouse before and after


If such misguided members wish to retain sustainable woodland cover, let alone a fast running heathland course, it is essential that the woodland be strictly managed in order to allow the remaining trees to develop.

Woodbridge golf course, a club founded in 1893, gives a good example of how trees now dominate the edge of fairways whereas previously, as this 1930s aerial photo shows, it was open heathland. At last the club has woken up and is pursuing an appropriate conservationist course management policy with trees being taken out.

Aerial of Woodbridge GC in 1930s and 2017


The first question to be asked is whether trees and woodland are suitable for a particular site and many considerations have to be taken into account. Firstly, what originally attracted golf to the site in the first place? Normally it was a combination of the land being infertile and therefore of little value to agriculture, conversely the infertility and typically sandy acid soil which goes with this was ideal for golf, as it encouraged the fine grasses which the golfer desired. This, combined with its free draining nature encouraged the architects of the golden era to concentrate on establishing courses on areas such as the Surrey and Berkshire heaths, which were to become the role models for much inland golf.

Shaded tee with loss of grass cover.

The ecosystem of commons and heathland has fine grasses that are not shade-tolerant. A management regime is required to control the regeneration of trees and to protect the fine balance between grassland and trees. Consequently, fine grasses will be lost to the undesirable broadleaf Annual Meadow (Poa annua) and Yorkshire Fog grasses as woodland cover increases.

This creates a loss to both the diminishing heathland ecology and the golfing quality of the site.


Philip Truett with his pencil bag of hickory shafted clubs at the southern end of Walton Heath.

One of our most famous heathland courses, Walton Heath, became overgrown with trees. The club heroically cut down hundreds of them and opened up the historic heath. Now the sparse sentinel trees are shown off in all their splendid beauty, isolated in the rough while rarely interfering with play. The banks of trees that are left are those on the periphery and particularly at the southern edge to help screen both the sight and noise of the M25.

Another ecologically progressive club is Hankley Common where they have not been afraid to take out whole swathes of self-seeded forest.

The famous, originally heathland, ‘Three Ws’ (Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon) have all recognised the need to take out lots of trees and undergrowth recently to both help speed up play and open up vistas between fairways. However, some remaining trees here continue to interfere with the golf or, as some would say, form part of the ‘modern’ design of the holes.

The same is true of The Berkshire and we all wait for these fine clubs around London to take the next logical step in progressive conservationism, which is to move from soft ‘target-golf’ greens dominated by annual meadow grass (Poa annua), to an agronomy giving firmness, trueness and sustainability (i.e. low inputs, lower costs) with fine grasses.

Perhaps the gradual banning of pesticide use on amenity turf will be the extra trigger to convince them of the future advantages of disease and draught resistant fine grasses.

Deciduous leaves among the heather

Heather will suffer a similar fate if trees shade it out but a long-term effect which is more devastating is that of the leaf litter from deciduous trees and the nitrogen fixing qualities of the interlopers which enrich the soil and create a whole new environment hostile to those precious qualities which attracted the game to the site in the first instance.

It is often forgotten by those who so object to management, that all they hold dear will be lost forever but they do not appreciate that preservation is not conservation; nature is a living entity and the pressure we unintentionally put upon it has to be redressed.

Another problem is that most people do not like change and sometimes there is insufficient trust and respect between golfers and greenkeepers. When trees are taken out there can be uproar. Northamptonshire County is now at last being returned to a fast running heathland championship course as Harry Colt first designed it a century ago. However, it only took about six months to elapse after trees were cut down behind two greens to create (to use the modern term) ‘infinity’ greens, for the ‘mutterings’ to subside. Sensible members soon realised the benefit to all aspects of the course once they became used to the new open vistas once again.

Chester Le Street sixth hole tee opened up.


Further, the effects of tree ingress occur over such a relatively long time-frame that it often goes unnoticed. Tees can be effectively reduced in size as branches encroach, forcing players to use only part of a tee. This often results in tees being extended into areas which spoil the line of play or affect the strategy. It is an expensive reaction that does not solve the fundamental problem, but is sometimes seen to be politically correct.

It is not only the shade and the lack of drying air movement that trees create but their roots compete for moisture and nutrients with the playing surfaces, which then require more irrigation than would be necessary if the trees were simply removed. Trimming roots or using root barriers does not work.

In conclusion perhaps the best way to illustrate to the ‘Doubting Thomases’ of the club is to take them to an area of heather or fine rough where a tree is situated and ask them to look what is beneath and say ‘do you really want to play your golf off that?’

Before we come on to how to manage trees, let us have a moment of light relief from a recently visited club where there was a notice reading: – 

‘The committee taking account of the view of the members, has decided for economy not to advertise the post of course manager nationally, as the club has within its ranks at least 450 highly qualified expert agronomists. All applications to be in writing to the secretary.’                   

Continuous Cover Management.


Woodland managed in a sustainable manner seeks to ensure that a young generation of trees is produced to replace those in senescence. In commercial forestry this is often achieved by clear felling then restocking an area of woodland. When the objectives are aesthetic and conservation based, it is preferable to have a range of age classes within the wood. Continuous cover management has advantages in providing continuity of landscape and wildlife habitats. In mature woodland restocking occurs via natural regeneration or planting in gaps in the canopy. These gaps may arise as a result of natural tree death or windblow. Where natural regeneration or planting is required and no gaps exist these will need to be created by selective felling.


Selective Thinning of Even-Aged Stands.


Larger areas of woodland on a course may have a wealth of naturally seeded regeneration; however its development can often be hampered by the shade cast by even-aged high canopy. Selective thinning to favour more sustainable species such as oak will improve the age structure of the woodland and address any reliance on pioneer species such as birch, which are relatively short-lived. Assuming the average lifespan for birch woodland on the golf course is 40-45 years, a significant proportion of the woodland area must be regenerated each year to prevent rapid deterioration of woodland cover in future decades.

The ‘weed of the forest’ at Royal Ashdown Forest GC

Chris Mitchell, course manager at Royal Ashdown Forest is clear about the need to reduce the number of silver birch, ‘the weed of the forest’ and in his comment at the bottom of FineGolf’s Conservation page, explains how bird life on the edges of his woods and across the heathland has been encouraged by tree removal.

The removal of stunted stems and those of poor form will concentrate future growth on better, more attractive trees, particularly around tees and greens where tree removal will allow better light penetration, and air circulation and improve the quality of the grass sward.

The opportunity should be taken to break up stands that are very linear in appearance, thinning and scalloping edges to create a more natural appearance. Homogenous stands may then be under planted in order to increase species diversity if this is appropriate.

Isle of Purbeck eleventh hole tree cover

There are few trees on the glorious heathland at Isle of Purbeck but there is a bank of Scots pine behind the par three eleventh green. FineGolf has recommended this stand could be so much more attractive by thinning out so individual trees can display their individual beauty. It would also reduce shade and increase air movement across a green that presently attracts moss.

Sentinel tree with dead stumps at The Renaissance

A particular love of FineGolf’s are mature Scots pine with a clean smooth trunk with living branches creating a beautiful structure at the top of the tree.   Nevertheless, although dead branch stumps look ugly sticking out of tree trunks, they are particularly eco-friendly and valuable as standing dead wood, as are large branches or trunks left on the woodland floor. What is of little eco-value are piles of twigs, chippings and brash, and eco-warriers who say differently should be ignored.

The stability of the woodland will improve as the trees are allowed to develop with a balanced canopy and root system ensuring that they will not become drawn and unstable. It will also guarantee that any future works produce timber of a marketable quality with straight knot-free trunks that will benefit the economics of management.

It is recognised that club members, having been fed with ‘tree-hugging’ propaganda for years, may be alarmed by large-scale felling operations. It is therefore recommended that all felling be undertaken in an unobtrusive a manner as possible, with timber being extracted only when essential to the smooth running of the golf course or for economic gain. This policy will also serve to increase deadwood habitats for fungi, birds and invertebrates.

However in some cases where arisings are over-abundant and could have a negative effect on the ecology of the site or would have implications on play, then carrying away the chippings or burning may be required.

Should clubs be completely transparent and inform the membership before any tree is taken out? If this means that the course manager and club officials explain the benefits of tree removal there will be an upside to transparency. A more pragmatic and sensible policy is for the club to authorise an overall course management policy document at the AGM which contains a vision as to where the club wants its course to be in the future. It is then up to the elected officials to protect the green staff from the criticism of the small but often vocal number of members, when the time comes to carry out work in support of the course conservationist policy and as recommended by appropriate expert consultants.

To obtain proper on-going advice on habitat management, golf clubs should get in touch with John Nicholson Associates, the UK’s leading independent habitat and golf landscape consultant.

A more general article on tree planting and food production by is worth reading.

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