Fore! Using golf balls to manage controlled-burning and save species

Researchers are working with park rangers and government managers to monitor the environment using golf balls.

Measuring the structure of grass using golf balls has proven useful in identifying when to conduct controlled burning or implement other management interventions.
Dr Nick Schultz, a Research Fellow at Federation University Australia’s School of Applied and Biomedical Science, first came up with the idea as an Honours student a decade ago.
‘My supervisor at La Trobe University, Dr John Morgan, was thinking about how to measure the density of grasslands,’ said Dr Schultz. ‘We initially had the idea of looking for a golf ball after a chip shot, and from there we developed a more sensible and repeatable method.’
The golf ball method involves placing a 1m by 1m frame on a patch of vegetation, dropping 18 golf balls within the frame, and allocating a score based on how many balls are visible from a bird’s-eye view.
Dr Schultz said the simple monitoring method is designed so non-ecologists can monitor changes in vegetation. ‘Environmental managers used to measure biomass – the weight of plant material above the ground,’ he said. ‘But the golf ball method helps you think about grassland structure in a different way, from the perspective of a bird or moth. Species don’t care about how much biomass there is, they care about how it is organised.’
He said an endangered bird in Victoria’s Northern Plains, the plains-wanderer, prefers an open grassland habitat, but not too open and not too closed. ‘There is a sweet spot on the golf ball scale for the plains-wanderer. If the grass is too closed, you can manage it by introducing grazing livestock or applying a controlled burn. So the golf ball score identifies a trigger for management interventions.’
And while the number 18 may bring to mind an 18-hole golf course, they settled on this number for more practical reasons. ‘Golf balls came in packs of 6, and I only had enough money in my wallet to buy 3 packs. But it turns out that 18 is a good distribution of balls across a 1-metre-square area.’
The golf ball method for rapid assessment of grassland structure was published in the latest edition ofEcological Management and Restoration by Dr Schultz and colleagues from a range of organisations including universities, Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority, the Federal and State Governments, and the Trust for Nature (