Wildlife to the fore as Royal Portrush gets ready to host the golf Open in three years
Expert to ensure the rich ecology of Co Down links protected
More than 200,000 visitors are expected to descend on Royal Portrush golf course when it hosts the Open in 2019 - and that might be bad news for the rich wildlife that makes its home there.
But the club is determined to protect the impressive array of orchids, butterflies and nesting birds living among the fairways of the north coast course.
That's why it has hired ecologist Bob Taylor to make sure these aren't harmed when the biggest golf tournament in the world comes to town in three years' time, bringing world famous names such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Speith, Bubba Watson and Danny Willett.
Bob says the three golf courses lie within a series of key coastal grasslands, next to the White Rocks Area of Special Scientific Interest, and of international importance for their conservation interest.
The dunes are home to ground nesting birds such as skylark, which are declining throughout the wider countryside, and also support important plant species such as bird's foot trefoil, restharrow and lady's bedstraw, alongside wild thyme, gentian and yellow rattle.
Golfers also encounter orchids when they are playing a round, including the early purple orchid, common twayblade, pyramidal, bee and northern marsh and common spotted orchids, Bob said.
Meanwhile, they will often hear the sound of the cuckoo and it is not unusual to see at least one pair out on the Valley Course searching for vulnerable meadow pipit nests where they can lay their eggs.
Bob added the club was carrying out a redesign so that the course will be able to accommodate the sheer numbers of visitors which will attend when the Open Championship is held in 2019 - the first time since 1951.
"The Open is run by the Royal and Ancient and it's the biggest event in golf in the world," he said.
"These events normally attract over 200,000 people, but the one here is likely to attract a lot more attention.
"It's going to be massive - and because of that there have been changes made on the course, working with Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the local authority.
"The club is carrying out a number of changes over the course which will improve the nature and quality of the course for the hosting of the Open, but in so doing the changes will be sympathetic to nature."
Holes have been lengthened, new bunkers installed and new holes constructed - all in order to provide enough space for the significant infrastructure that will need to be put in place to support the large visitor numbers.
Space needs to be made to accommodate a tented village, featuring corporate hospitality, media coverage, catering, shops and banks.
That could have a horrendous impact on the species on the dunes and grasslands, but that's where Bob comes in.
He has identified where the wildlife hotspots are so that these can be cordoned off to keep people out altogether.
It is vital not to disturb nesting birds, he explained. "This is achieved by cutting out specified routes earlier in the year before the birds settle to nest," he said.
"All of the structures being built will be protected with netting (during construction) to stop birds from nesting in them."
Vantage points and routes will be agreed ahead of time and cordoned off to make sure there is no freedom to trample over sensitive grassland with high botanical value.
The club is even trying to improve the habitats it already has with a schedule of managing scrub to create a greater diversity of habitats and varying the cutting of grassland so there is a more diverse sward.