Flora, fauna & fairways
To play golf at Royal Birkdale is to play through a landscape teeming with wildlife that is frequently endangered, and occasionally entirely unique to the UK. It is one of the most ecologically sensitive Open courses, recognised internationally for its outstanding nature conservation value.
Royal Birkdale’s expansive sand dunes support the only population in northwest England of petalwort and the only known population in England of Baltic rush. The area is a hugely popular site for overwintering wading birds and is home to several other rarities such as natterjack toads, great crested newt, sand lizard and marsh helleborine orchid.
The Club works closely with Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Sefton Woodland Owners Task Group, Sefton Land Managers and the British Trust for Nature Conservation Volunteers to ensure Royal Birkdale remains at the forefront of conservation in the UK.
Here are just some Royal Birkdale’s natural highlights:
The shallow pool in the centre of the dune slack between the 3rd and 6th holes attracts dragonflies such as the ruddy darter.
Mature male ruddy darters are bright crimson while immature males and females are pale ochre. Both can be distinguished by their characteristic bouncing, swinging flight.
The large pond on the 5th hole supports a population of southern hawker dragonflies. These can be seen resting by the pond but can also be spotted high above the pine trees to the left of this hole, trying to attract a mate.
Southern hawkers are much larger and more conspicuous than the small ruddy darter: male southern hawkers have vibrant blue, green and black markings, while the female is stouter with more subtle green, black and yellow markings. The male southern hawker also has a distinctive flight, circling around following a regular path, and they will deliberately fly close to human observers.
The grey heron is a common visitor to the course and may be seen hunting for fish or amphibians in the ditch along the left of the 13th fairway. These imposing birds, which grow to heights of up to 1m, have also been spotted stalking slowly around the perimeter of the pool between the 3rd and 6th.
Red squirrels are our only native squirrel. They are very shy and spend much of their time high in the trees. Their presence can be confirmed by the chewed pine cones which they let fall to the ground and by the large dreys, or nests, which they build in the forks of trees. You may even be lucky enough to hear a distinctive ‘chuk-chuk’ noise if one is close by.
The population and distribution of red squirrels has declined dramatically across all areas of the UK, due mainly to habitat loss, the competitive ability of the grey squirrels and the introduction of disease by greys.
It was one such outbreak of ‘squirrel pox’ that decimated local numbers in 2007/8 but the population has now started to recover again.
The pine plantations which run alongside the 5th and 6th holes and the few isolated trees across the course aid the movement of red squirrels along the Sefton Coast, although the squirrels do not breed on the Birkdale links.
The 7th hole is a par 3 which plays across a gently undulating grassland. The characteristic grating sound of the common field grasshopper can be heard here, and across the grasslands at Royal Birkdale, and they can often be seen sunning themselves on bare patches of ground.
This large grasshopper varies in colour and individuals may be green, brown or purple and can be mottled with black, brown or grey. Mature adults have an orange tip on their abdomen and this helps distinguish them from other grasshoppers. Unlike other grasshoppers, this species is a strong flier.
Sea buckthorn is found to the left of the 18th fairway. This thorny shrub has silvery stems and leaves and orange berries. Its small flowers are pale green and appear before the leaves.
Sea buckthorn can form large impenetrable thickets, to the detriment of locally native flora, and must be managed. The orange berries provide a valuable source of food for small songbirds in winter, including willow warbler and linnet.
Sand lizards are protected under both national and European legislation. It is illegal to deliberately disturb, capture, injure or kill a sand lizard, or to damage or destroy breeding sites or resting places.
This means that the greenstaff at Royal Birkdale have to adapt their methods and the timing of their operations to avoid them. During The Open, even operations as simple as changing the hole location require a quick check to see if a sand lizard has snuck into the cup.
Sand lizards are difficult to spot as they are well camouflaged within the duneland vegetation. They spend a lot of time underground, either in burrows dug by the lizard or in vacant mammal burrows, where they often form small colonies and where they hibernate in winter. Eggs are also laid underground. They are most easily seen when basking in open sand on sunny, south facing banks and paths.
Like all lizards, they are cold blooded and must regulate their temperature by alternatively seeking sun and shade and, as such, need both open sand for sun bathing and tall vegetation for shade. At Royal Birkdale, sand lizards are most often seen on the holes to the south of the course which adjoin the Birkdale Corridor Local Nature Reserve.
Sand lizards are generally 18 to 20 cm in length and are stocky with blunt snouts, short heads and short legs. Female sand lizards are longer than the males and coloured pale grey or light brown beneath a dark black patterning, with a creamy white underside. The male sand lizard also has a slightly darker central stripe of patterning on its back and has green sides, which are particularly vibrant during the breeding season, and a pale green belly.