Golf courses are trying to limit their environmental footprint

The hamlet of Unjat disappears, on the right of the small secondary road 211. And suddenly, a golf course. There, in the middle of nowhere, in the heart of the Ariège countryside. The installation is invisible from the road, except for the parking lot occupied by around thirty sedans on this September day still crushed by a blazing sun. “It’s a route set in the middle of nature, not imposed on nature”, likes to point out Jean-Alain Rives, the president of Ecogolf Ariège-Pyrénées (La Bastide-de-Sérou).

The owner of the site since 2019 does not miss an opportunity to highlight the specificity of this 18-hole golf course born in 1986 from the inspiration of a local elected official. Its location certainly (the only one in Ariège), but above all the environmental approach of its owner (the department) and of the Golf Club de l’Ariège association, which manages it by delegation: combining territorial development and sustainable maintenance. This is the bet taken in 2008 and which, after long work, led to the inauguration of the Ecogolf in 2014: 75 hectares of an ecological area labeled by the regional natural park of the Ariège Pyrenees, on the basis of a unique charter in France.

Suffice to say that the desire to weigh as little as possible on the Plantaurel massif, which hosts it, was not born of the climatic emergency – which is obvious to everyone after a scorching summer. This is for the head gardener, the “greenkeeper” François Viovy, in office since 2008, a daily concern.

Water, object of all attention

First, water management. The site is fortunate to have two hill reservoirs (60,000 m3), one of which is undergoing expansion “to avoid the pitfall of this year of drought where we were almost dry in mid-August”, says the gardener. Who, on this chapter, wants to moderate the recurring storms: “The community has been working on the subject for a very long time. Here, before labeling, the irrigation system, to be more economical, was reviewed in 2006. Water is what we control best”. With or without deductions, Ecogolf takes care of its sobriety, even recovering the morning dew, “with a rake, for two hours, 1 to 2 liters per m2”explains François Viovy.

Attention is focused above all on the greens, the only spaces authorized by derogation to receive water in the event of a restriction. “We are doing a lot of research on lawn grasses, in order to find the least water-eating species or those capable of seeking water from deeper depths”, continues François Viovy. A quest that motivates most greenkeepers today, and whose training offered by their professional association (Agref), “are really committed to providing the necessary responses to new climatic constraints”assures François Viovy.

If he says ” to understand “ the debate on watering, he wishes to emphasize the economic stakes: “If I no longer water my greens in July and August, which represent only 1.5 hectares of our estate, it will take me several months to recover them. And if a new restriction occurs the following year, there is a risk of permanent closure. That’s what’s in the balance. »

Another concern for Ecogolf, fertilization, with the ban on the use of phytosanitary products from January 2025. It almost only concerns the greens, and still promises a headache, even if it is constantly reduction (from one treatment per month to four per year). The site also oversees the transition to electric maintenance tools. A robot is already mowing the fairways, and perhaps a new one, at the prototype stage, will make it possible to treat the greens with light therapy. “It’s not a fadswears Jean-Alain Rives. These new machines allow me to free up working time for my gardeners who can concentrate on more in-depth maintenance of the course, in particular to preserve biodiversity. »

Preserving biodiversity

Ecogolf has just obtained the silver label “Golf for biodiversity” created by the French Golf Federation (FFG) in 2018, to testify to the enhancement of natural heritage. An ethologist-naturalist, mandated by the regional park, multiplies the visits to carry out an inventory of the fauna and flora. Good habits have been taken: no longer mow around the limestone rocks that dot the site, killing all life around, or preserve “green corridors”, between the tree-lined passages in particular, to guarantee the mixture of species. “We have about ten different bats, grass snakes, a red kite, among others,” lists Jean-Alain Rives.

Occupants of the places who watch, jaded, these funny passers-by with carts and canes, we also come across them on the golf course of Téoula, in Plaisance-du-Touch. In particular at the edge of the ponds, below a watershed which supplies water to the 60-hectare site in the Toulouse suburbs. The municipal course, born in the 1990s and managed today by the UGolf group, operator of around fifty sites in France, is a pioneer in environmental matters. He initiated a merger with the Ecocert certification body in the mid-2000s to create the first “Eco-sustainable Golf” label, which Téoula obtained in 2010.

The effort focuses first on water, with reasoned watering assisted by specific software. Result: a reduction by two of the annual consumption, from 90,000 m3 to 45,000 m3. The preservation of biodiversity is also on the program with birdhouses, beehives, an ongoing inventory of fish present in the ponds, among others. Like the Ariège Ecogolf, Téoula is one of three golf courses in Occitanie to display the silver label of the FFG in this area.

The necessary awareness of golfers

“A lot of work has been done over the years, and today we are more in detail and deepening our knowledge”, judge Alexandre Capet, the director of the site. Who also wants to mention the necessary education of golfers themselves. On this Sunday, September 10, while the mercury still exceeds 30°C, after crossing 36°C 22 times this summer in mainland France, yellow largely dominates the course. “Our teams are doing a lot of explaining work, and this state, the players are starting to accept it. But we must continue to raise awareness. The disappearance of garbage cans on the course for example, to avoid the consumption of bags, the difficulties of sorting, it was not easy for some. »

Progress to be made? Of course, and always. But the young director deplores the turn of the summer controversy which resulted in spectacular actions by environmental activists sabotaging two courses around Toulouse. “Yes, the climate emergency is also binding on us, but the golf industry has long been on a positive path, and should be taken as an example rather than the opposite. »

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A sport that attracts more and more

The French Golf Federation (FFG) had some 437,000 licensees in 2021 (a record, up 4.4% over ten years), including 117,500 women and 44,000 young people under the age of 19. The average age was 53 (55 for women, 52 for men).

The FFG has in France and overseas 740 structures, including 611 golf courses with more than 9 holes.

Ecogolf Ariège-Pyrenees has 376 members and welcomes 9,000 visitors per year (constantly increasing). It employs between 9 and 11 people, excluding the restaurant. The Toulouse Téoula golf course, meanwhile, claims 1,000 members, and employs between 12 and 15 people, excluding the restaurant.

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