Maybe nature and golfers can club together ...

THE tadpoles nudging into the pond's warm and sandy shallows were jet black, not brown, and had none of the gold speckling that…

THE tadpoles nudging into the pond's warm and sandy shallows were jet black, not brown, and had none of the gold speckling that decorates the larvae of frogs. They were toad tadpoles baby natterjacks, the only sort of toads we have and there were thousands of them, lined up to goggle at golfers on the fairway.

Six years ago, the fate of the natterjacks of Castlegregory, Co Kerry, was a matter of deep ecological concern. This summer, they seem to be thriving even, perhaps, increasing despite fears that changes to their habitat would expose them to predators that could wipe them out.

So far, so good but the Castlegregory golf course row has been a salutary experience. Something like it had to happen, to bring awareness that bulldozers should not rip into irreplaceable "natural" landscapes without expert assessment and control. An Bord Pleanala's new willingness to curb the extension of golf courses on ecological grounds owes much to the lessons from Kerry.

I was introduced to the tadpoles by Michael O'Shea, a graduate horticulturist who lives near the nine hole course and watches over its ecological regime. Years ago he was one of those who grew onions and carrots for the Castlegregory vegetable co-op an idea, finally unsuccessful, for stemming local emigration. The golf course was another community initiative. Working with its problems has made Michael O'Shea one of Ireland's most experienced golf course agronomists, personally sold on working with nature in course design and management.


The Castlegregory course has been created between Lough Gill (a wildlife sanctuary) and Stradbally Strand. In 1989, this landscape of dunes and meadow rich machair was one of the largest undisturbed areas of its kind in western Ireland (not entirely pristine, perhaps there are traces of bunkers in the machair, dug by the Tralee Golf Club in the late 19th century).

The new development needed no planning permission from Kerry County Council and went ahead despite the protests of botanists, zoologists and other nature conservationists. Some dunes were topped with a digger to make greens. Dunne grassland was rolled and mowed to make fairways. Dune slacks were drained and new ponds dug.

It was the ponds that worried biologists such as Dr Trevor Beebe, an authority on frogs and toads and a particular champion of the rare matter, jack.

When he visited Castlegregory in 1991, to make a report for the Council of Europe, he found the ponds and drainage channels thronged with breeding toads, and the managers of the golf course well pleased to see them. But the natterjacks had formerly bred in shallow, ephemeral pools which often dried out in summer. Deeper pools, Dr Beebe explained, mature over the years, growing dense water plants and bringing in carnivorous diving beetles and dragonfly larvae that can wipe out entire populations of natterjacks. In five to 10 years, he warned, the loads might be extinct.

Well, it's five years on and there's no sign of decline in their breeding. Michael O'Shea gives credit to the trout, which, he says, come up into the ponds from Lough Gill and eat the water beetles and the larvae. They do not, on the other hand, eat the tadpoles (O'Shea speaks as an angler and scientist who guts his own trout).

The other big concern was for the flora of the dunes and machair, especially the orchids. The gorgeous, raspberry pink pyramidal orchids I spotted in the rough were just one of a whole series of species that bloom through the summer, from the early purples to the tiny, but exquisite, autumn lady's tresses. The rarer ones, the Dactylorhiza orchids, grow in the dune slacks, where the effects of drainage may take a long time to show.

But the glamour of orchids is almost a distraction from the wider botanical costs of golf course development in such an "untouched" habitat even when, as at Castlegregory, the whole intention was to do it in a nature friendly way.

Its managers never set out on the path taken elsewhere in Ireland of trying to ape the dark green, chemical sprayed sword of American fantasy golf landscapes like the model at Augusta, Geogia.

Instead Castlegregory retained the original vegetation cover of the dunes and machair, valuing its lean and proven toughness, and the let guminous wildflowers trefoils, clovers and vetches that feed the grassland with nitrogen for nothing. The managers compost sea weed from the shore and use its black sand residue as an organic, slow release fertiliser for the greens.

The roughs are mown twice a year, to simulate the livestock grazing pressure which helped to create this landscape in the first, place. People who come to play golf sometimes end up just sitting down to gaze at the flowers.

What has suffered is diversity at one early count, there were 18 species in the fairways, compared with 31 in the roughs. In the longer, term some species may vanish altogether. On the other hand, the twice a year mowing of the roughs is certainly more kind to the resident flora than the fierce over grazing and trampling which has been the fate of this sort of terrain elsewhere.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author