IT is a sporting pastime that has become ingrained in the culture of Scotland since a summer day in 1502 when King James IV first swung his new “gowf clubbe”.

But in the ancient home of golf – where more than one in six of the nation’s 600 courses are located on the coast – there are concerns about how the inclement weather and climate change are threatening some of the nation’s most famous venues such as the Old Course at St Andrews and Royal Troon.

However, golf is playing a major role in moves to protect Scotland’s eroding coastline, with the sport’s governing body, the R&A, ploughing £650,000 into finding solutions.

The Herald on Sunday can reveal it is supporting a highly sensitive new method being trialled in Scotland which can help protect erosion cheaply by stabilising sand dunes using sustainable methods – following concerns that not enough is being done.

Even the golf course on which the innovation is being tested is being kept secret for now.

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Also pioneering an innovative method is the most threatened course of all, at Montrose golf links, where there are plans to create a £25 million new sand island to prevent the course – and the town of Montrose itself – being flooded, following concerns about coastal erosion highlighted by clubs which use the links.

HeraldScotland:

Under the new R&A-backed project, greenkeepers use sustainable woodland residue called brash bales to perform an “energy absorbing role” at the base of dunes to help prevent erosion.

The environmentally-friendly material has been designed to allow greenkeepers to install them simply into dunes to provide a stronger defence against waves, at an affordable cost and without the need for major costly engineering works.

It also avoids the use of expensive “rock armour” solutions which some experts say only transfer the erosion issues to other parts of the coast.

Aberdeenshire-based consultant Siskin Asset Management is fronting the R&A-funded trial of what is described as an “innovative new method” for defence of eroding coastlines.

The proof-of-concept project, which will last three years, will test what the R&A is saying is an “effective technique” for the protection of at-risk areas on the coast.

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Siskin director Ray Lawrenson said it had already been working on what he called “an innovative new method” for the defence of eroding coastlines for over two years, and a patent application is in its early stages.

He said: “The trial is to be conducted at a golf course currently suffering from erosion effects. A number of leading academic institutions are also participating in the project through research work and advisory support.

“The key areas of innovation are the use of sustainable and environmentally friendly material arranged and held in place in a way which resists wave attack at the base of sand dunes.

“A further feature is that the design of the system should mean the skills required to construct an installation are largely available within existing greenkeeping teams.

HeraldScotland:

“The overall effect of a successful trial will be to provide golf courses with a method to defend golf courses from erosion at affordable cost.

“Through the trial project we hope that the method is proven to be effective against erosion and that the environmental and affordability credentials of the system will mean individuals and individual facilities have the ability to defend property against a developing threat which would otherwise not be possible using current techniques.”

The R&A is investing in various sustainability projects as the sport attempts to safeguard itself from the worst effects of climate change, with flooding from even minimal rises in sea levels a growing concern.

Inland courses are also under threat from rising river levels.

The money will finance projects looking into coastal management approaches and erosion mitigation, while others examine the threats to native flora and fauna from diseases and pests, irrigation and drainage.

Environmentalists have warned that even a small increase in sea levels could wash away all of the nation’s famous links courses – which are built on dunes, sandy soil and grassland – by the end of the century.

Scotland’s coast is uniquely exposed to climate change due to the effects of rising sea levels and also temperature and rainfall changes on land.

An R&A report into the climate change issues facing golf courses reveals how Scotland has less protection shoreline protection than the rest of the UK.

It says that while 32% of the Northern Ireland coast and 44% of England and Wales is “armoured” – the practice of using physical structures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion – in Scotland it is just 6%.

The Climate Coalition, which represents more than 130 organisations in Britain studying the effects of climate change, said in a 2018 report that golf faced an “unexpected threat” from even a slight rise in sea levels, and Open Championship venues such as St Andrews, Royal Troon and Muirfield could be underwater by 2100.

Drone footage of Royal Troon

The report, which said six of the UK’s seven wettest years on record have occurred since 2000, predicted that “golf courses will crumble into the sea”.

The R&A has already teamed up with researchers from the University of St Andrews to carry out a “Blue Carbon” audit of the coastal golf courses of Great Britain and Ireland, with five courses chosen to provide a more focused examination – including the home of golf, the Old Course in St Andrews.

The three-year project is led by Professor Bill Austin of the University of St Andrews, which was granted £90,000 by the R&A. It will measure the ability of courses to store carbon dioxide and mitigate against the effects of climate change while touching on the wider challenges facing the sport’s sustainability.

Other historic courses under threat include Royal Aberdeen, Royal Dornoch, Machrihanish and Nairn.

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An R&A action plan on coastal change and its impact on golf courses, talks of “difficult times ahead” and warns that it is “impossible” to see how playing conditions can be maintained without technological breakthroughs and changes in “attitudes and behaviours” among the sport’s stakeholders, including club owners, players, managers and green staff”.

It said: “Coastal communities, infrastructure and landscapes already face threats from flooding and coastal erosion. These threats will increase in the future, with some coastal communities and infrastructure likely to be unviable in their current form.”

The action plan continued: “There is a growing global opportunity for nature-based solutions in both the mitigation of and adaptation to climate and coastal change.”

A major project to boost coastal defences at one of Scotland’s most scenic spots and “help preserve” one of the oldest clubs in the world has already been completed.

Plans for the refurbishment of existing coastal defences across the full length of the North Berwick Golf Club historic West Links, intended to “combat the rate of coastal erosion”, includes the repair of 150 metres of rock armouring and timber revetments, and the installation of soft rock sand bags within a quarter-mile-long dune protection system.

Details produced to planning authorities show that 1,000 tonnes of additional rock armouring were to be installed in front of an existing timber revetment wall between the course and the foreshore.

The R&A has also appointed engineering, design and project management consultants Royal HaskoningDHV to carry out a nine-month survey of all coastal courses to understand the levels of awareness of the threat caused by coastal change and how prepared they are.

It also aims to provide advise on technical solutions to protect golf courses from erosion which are affordable and sustainable.

Jaap Flikweert, flood and coastal management adviser with the firm of consultants, said: “The overall objective of our projects is to enable the British Isles golfing community to manage coastal change for their coastal courses, helping to secure the long-term future of the sport on the coast.”

Steve Isaac, director of sustainability at the R&A, said: “The results of the projects being funded will ... provide insights to the golf industry as we consider how to address the challenges and opportunities presented by a changing climate, resource constraints and regulation on golf course management.”

How the Siskin system works

"The Siskin system looks to fix energy absorbing material at the existing base of the dune," says Siskin director Ray Lawrenson. "In other words, there are no major construction works to ‘build back out’.

"What is expected to happen once the system is installed is that wave-borne sediment is ‘washed in’ to the open structure of the brash bales and is captured so consolidating the structure with natural material. Vegetation would then be seen to establish in the usual natural cycle.

"By ‘capturing’ wave-borne sediment at the base of the dune and enabling vegetation to establish, the dune base becomes more robust against wave attack. This is not a ‘fire and forget’ solution and would undoubtedly require maintenance over the years.

"However, it can be installed at significantly lower capital cost with annual operational expenditure expected to be quite limited. In this way it becomes more affordable for individual clubs."