When Catherine Fournil, executive manager of the Vidauban Foundation for the Environment, advised the members of Le Golf de Vidauban in France that she would like to introduce donkeys to their beloved complex, they looked at her somewhat strangely. How would she stop them from escaping their electric fence and careering down the fairways?
“I’m blessed that the members trust me,” said Fournil, before giving Global Golf Post the same explanation she had given to them.
It was all about the ongoing protection of their Robert Trent Jones masterpiece in a manner which corresponded with the expectations of the Natural Reserve surrounding the course. This region of Provence in southeastern France is one of the world’s foremost biodiversity hotspots as identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This, of course, is a situation which is all the more salient at a time when we are hearing on a daily basis that any further erosion of biodiversity could spell disaster for the world at large.
The donkeys, Fournil told the members, had a job to do. They would eat the clippings from the natural zones on the course, thereby reducing the risk of one more forest fire in the region and serve as a bulwark to those that were there already. At the same time, they would fertilise the area in a cheap and ecologically friendly way.
The 20 or so highly privileged and well-heeled club members may or may not have any Bryson DeChambeaus or Brooks Koepkas in their number, but it is their proud boast that they are helping to save the local Hermann’s tortoises from extinction.
The breeders of the local donkeys were every bit as approving of the arrangements as you would expect while, before too long, the members were viewing the baying arrivals as old friends.
There is more to the story of the clippings. Because the rough at Vidauban includes reptiles and boundless other creepy-crawlies, it is cut in stages. During the course of a meek first cut along the fairway’s edge, these creatures know to migrate into the longer grass and will only move back once the coast is clear.
The 20 or so highly privileged and well-heeled club members may or may not have any Bryson DeChambeaus or Brooks Koepkas in their number, but it is their proud boast that they are helping to save the local Hermann’s tortoises from extinction. Today, Vidauban has a thriving population of these creatures, thanks largely to the specially protected egg-laying zones around the course and the introduction of a dog ban. (Dogs are inclined to give the turtles what can be a lethal nip.)
In other words, what many see as Europe’s answer to Augusta National is not all about its members.
Robert Trent Jones Snr, when he purchased the land in the 1970s, had it in mind to join forces with his son, Robert Jnr, in building three courses on the site along with a thousand homes. However, such were the problems with planning and finance that the project went bust and even the one course which had been finished was in danger of being abandoned.
Yet that one course is something special, carved as it is out of the forest and used by no one other than the members and their guests. To explain just how good it is, suffice to say that its architect once described it as up there with his Robert Trent Jones Golf Club near Washington DC “in being among my finest work from the standpoint of marvellous courses.”
Since 2011, Fournil has decided, with the endless support of Michael Hilti, the founding president at the Vidauban setup, to take things further by collaborating with the scientific community – a move which in turn resulted in a liaison with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Initially, the scientists were hesitant to collaborate with a golf club in that they had heard so many bad things about the sport and the damage it can do to the environment. Then the head of the Natural Heritage department changed his mind: “If we don’t collaborate with you, your property will be lost to science.”
Apparently, it did not take long for the scientists to uncover a Pandora’s box of underground microorganisms in addition to a wealth of rare flora and fauna. One way and another, it mirrors precisely what Jones Snr said back in 1967 about wanting “to design a course within the nature.”
“… it reminded them of what their club is all about; gave them time to think about what we have and how we are giving nature the chance to recover. They are proud to belong to such a pioneer establishment.” – Catherine Fournil
Fournil is adamant that the golf industry has to change, “to listen to scientists who are ready to cooperate with us. Here at Vidauban, Steve Byrne, our wonderful Scottish superintendent, listens to the scientists and they to him as they collaborate in helping him to take golf back to the game of nature that it used to be.”
For the benefit of the members during lockdown, Fournil sent out an awe-inspiring film of what was going on in their absence. It is all about the wildlife, with Bertrand Mussotte the director and Fernand Deroussen the naturalist audio composer. There is nothing in the way of a musical score, with Deroussen giving that side of things over to the animals. In which connection, Fournil’s favourite sounds are the buzz of some 3,000 insect species, with seemingly every one of this colourful cast playing its part in the introductory buzzing.
“The members loved it,” she said. “They were unable to come and play but it reminded them of what their club is all about; gave them time to think about what we have and how we are giving nature the chance to recover. They are proud to belong to such a pioneer establishment.”
Jean-Philippe Siblet, the former director of the Natural Heritage Department, closed this work of art with a frightening update on how, where the extinction of dinosaurs took millions of years, the erosion of biodiversity is likely to have a still more immediate effect than climate change. It is, he says, “a sixth crisis which it is essential to avoid.”
He just hopes that the younger generation will be more clever than their elders when it comes to raising awareness “before it is too late.”
Top photo: Courtesy Le Golf de Vidauban
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