British OpenJuly 19, 2015

Mother nature and St. Andrews: James Hutchinson's secret wars

"I have a problem in life," said James Hutchinson, the environmental manager at St. Andrews. "When I talk about things ordinarily, I'm boring. But when I'm out here, I throw my hands around and get a bit excitable."

We were walking along a fairway on the New Course -- one of seven courses at St. Andrews Links -- in blustery wind that Hutchinson estimated at around 40 mph. Play had been halted for the morning, which gave him a rare period of free time. During Open week, Hutchinson rarely gets to sleep, and when he does, it's in small air mattress in his office at the Jubilee maintenance center (he also as a tent at an improvised campsite with other greenkeepers, but it flooded in Friday's rain).

He was speaking quietly, because he'd just heard the song of a yellowhammer bird that was hiding in a nearby patch of gorse -- a few short notes followed by a longer one. (Think of the famous opening notes of Beethoven's "Symphony no. 5", which one of his students claimed was inspired by the bird.) Hutchinson was excited about the prospect of spotting what he called, with affection, a "ridiculous bird...a chestnut breast and a bright yellow head." We saw a group of linnets, but those birds, he told me, travel in packs, and unfortunately the solitary yellowhammer stayed hidden beneath the gorse.

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The herring gull, which Hutchinson said has a taste for "kebabs and chips."

Hutchinson, a Blackpool native who spent 20 years as a greenskeeper at Fairhaven Golf Club in Lancashire before being promoted to ecology manager, came to St. Andrews in 2014. While the condition of the seven golf courses at St. Andrews, particularly the Old Course, is the primary responsibility of most of the club's employees, Hutchinson's secondary task is the protection and enhancement of wildlife on the course. His success at this task if demonstrated by the club's recent accreditation by the Golf Environment Organization, following a thorough inspection that lasted a day and a half, and that, Hutchinson admitted, inspired just a little anxiety.

His third task, as a public representative of the course and its environmental strategy, was why I sought him out on Saturday. I was hoping for a few minutes to speak about the wildlife on the course, mostly for my own curiosity—I'm a rank amateur at wildflower and bird identification, and only slightly better at trees, but I find it all endlessly fascinating—and perhaps to enhance my descriptions of the beautiful links setting. Play had been halted by the wind, so instead of a short interview, Hutchinson gave me a two-and-a-half tour of the grounds, speaking on topics from water to plants to rabbits to composting. He had overstated his "problem"—his enthusiasm was contagious, and not at all overbearing, and he proved to be the best possible ambassador for St. Andrews links.

Pleasant as his personality was, Hutchinson didn't disagree at the conclusion of our walk when I theorized that however he might describe his job, in truth he was engaged in constant tactical warfare—influencing, cajoling, and sometimes downright battling mother nature.

His biggest fight is against the gorse—the low encroaching shrubs with the sharp leaves and gnarled trunks that can spread on dry, sandy soil with great speed, killing off other plants in the process. The name comes from the Old English word "gorst," meaning wasteland, and unchecked, that's exactly what gorse creates—aside from the odd stinging nettle, very little grows where dense thickets of gorse have taken root. The detriments of too much gorse are manifold, as Hutchinson explained. Take sand dunes—conditions are best when the dunes are "mobile," meaning they can switch shape and shift to a certain degree. This ensures that some sand is exposed, which is beneficial for mining bees and other insects, which help to pollinate important flowers, which has effects extending outward like the ripples in a pond. When gorse grows up to a dune, though, it stabilizes the whole mound, cutting off the beneficial chain at its source.

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The invasive gorse, with its gnarled trunk.

The larger problem is that gorse creates nutrients from photosynthesis that benefit "fat grasses," like the beautiful but highly invasive Yorkshire fog, at the expense of fine grasses like fescue, which is the hallmark of links golf. As such, it literally threatens the essence of St. Andrews. But the issue is not as simple as removing the gorse—it also serves as protection for ground-nesting birds, which can hatch their eggs beneath the prickly leaves, safe from high-flying predators. Many of these birds are on the endangered list of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—removing the gorse would be disastrous. Even from an aesthetic angle, gorse has become a visual staple at St. Andrews.

Hutchinson's strategy has to be far subtler. Using the 60 full-time greenkeepers available to him (the number increases to 90 during the golfing season, April-October, he trims he trims the gorse nearly to the ground in circular sections, reducing the density and allowing other plants to spring up in its absence. The next year, while the original ring grows back, he'll tackle the next section, and on and on in a constant cycle, maintaining a hard-earned equilibrium.

The battle for the heather is even more intricate. The low shrub, with its beautiful purple flowers that have been romanticized to the point of becoming a national symbol of Scotland, has been in decline for some time. The gorse is partly to blame, as are the massive crowds—"it doesn't respond well to trampling," he told me, tongue firmly in cheek. In an attempt to restore the heather that used to line the fairways of certain holes on the Old Course—the word "Heathery" is used as the name of holes 6 and 12—Hutchinson actually uses part of his huge staff to manually strip the seeds from the heather that exists, accumulating a few inches a day and spreading it by hand to new areas.

A similar process was used to defeat the insidious heather beetle, which eats the roots and aerial portions at different stages of development. The greenskeepers spent days physically lifting the plants, scraping the moss beneath to kill the beetle larvae, and it's worked. Hutchinson could have used harvesters for the seeds, or pesticide for the beetles, but the secondary effects of the diesel fuel and the poison chemicals harm other plant and insect life. In fact, pesticides are seldom used at St. Andrews. Like many other plants Hutchinson is trying to save, the heather is critically important for butterflies and bees and the gray partridge, which hides from predators in its midst.

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Yorkshire Fog, one of the "fat" grasses confined to the rough.

There are countless other examples of these daily skirmishes. In order to combat the rabbits that dig into the greens, he's encouraged the presence of predatory foxes, stoats, and weasels by baiting areas with food they like—a natural solution that, again, avoids the use of poison. To defeat the "fairy rings," which are circular swaths of bright green created by fungus-produced nitrogen, he and his team have attempted all sorts of "old wives' tales," none of which have proven as effective as waiting for winter.

Interestingly, one of the great issues facing American golf courses—water conservation—barely registers as a minor concern at St. Andrews. The climate is the biggest factor, with plentiful rain and fewer sunlight hours. In fact, the seven courses at St. Andrews have their own self-sustaining water supply. "Water bores," well-like structures, provide the water supply that is then refined in an ingenious reedbed filtration system.

In the broadest sense, the water moves through four different tiers, with common reeds sapping up any oils, metals, or other pollutants, and thereby purifying the water. Each tier has less reed growth—a sign that the system is working—and by the final plain, the water seeps through the stones, where it collected and added to the irrigation system. Scientists have suggested it is good enough to drink by that point, which Hutchinson has never tried, but what he knows is that the nutrient-free water is perfect for the fescue, rye, and bent grass that makes up St. Andrews, and less beneficial for the invasive grass like cocksfoot and Yorkshire fog. The club needs just four water bores and three filtration systems to provide water for all seven courses. Even the rain water that lands on the maintenance is harvested, and put through a sulfur burner if the Ph is too acidic.

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A cinnabar caterpillar explores the ragwort flower.

Hutchinson also told me about one of his other responsibilities during Open week—retrieving the tee markers and flags after each round. On these trips, he's been offered hundreds of pounds by fans hoping to take home a souvenir. "They're half-joking at first," he said, "trying to test the waters." Then they get more serious, and so does he—it's not happening.

Despite the theme of conflict, the overriding sense I felt that morning was serenity—along our walk, he pointed out the various wildflowers, of which there are 117 species on the ground. From the ubiquitous white yarrow to the purple harebell to the wonderfully named yellow blooms of "lady's bedstraw" to the creeping thistle to the tall rosebay willow herb, they color the landscape. He directed my eyes beyond the two obvious birds—the black crows and the white herring gulls, which originally feasted on fish but now, Hutchinson noted, have a taste for "kebabs and chips"—to some of the other 87 species; the grasshopper warbler that can throw its voice like a ventriloquist; the meadow pipits nesting behind the fifth tee at the Old Course, which led his team to close off a pedestrian foot path for their protection. At the end of our tour, we looked out over the sand dunes to the North Sea. The water by the shore was a dark jade green, fading in the distance to a deeper blue.

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A growth of creeping thistle.

Beyond the subtle wars he wages, Hutchinson displayed a care for nature that is impossible to fake. Each solution he invents takes the butterfly effect into account—every action has a reaction, and by using natural solutions instead of blithely poisoning the problem species, he helps protect a delicate ecosystem. The small enhancements, too, show his concern for creatures he could easily ignore. By the compost heaps, he had placed railroad sleepers up against the face of a dune, drilling holes in each for the benefit of the sand martin—another bird in decline that likes to burrow into sand. By the Jubilee maintenance facility, he used a series of wooden pallets, sod, and logs to build a structure designed to house "saprophytes." In layman's terms, it's a hotel for bugs, the smallest of the small—wood louses, millipedes, and anything else that could find its way in.

Who would care about those creatures? Hutchinson would, and I came away feeling that his touching dedication was both a product of, and a credit to, the spiritual resonance native to St. Andrews.

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