EDITOR'S BLOG: Current state of bowls

Clubs facing many challenges
EDITOR'S BLOG: Current state of bowls

This week I thought it relevant to talk about the current state of bowling clubs - particularly crown green bowling clubs who, in recent years, have faced many challenges in response to low memberships, reduced income streams and club closures.

Talking to several Midlands groundsmen and contractors who look after bowling greens, there has most definitely been a decline in the number of bowling greens in existence. These have been lost due to closure, reduced memberships and a lack of maintenance funds.

Bowling was once one of the nation’s most popular pastimes and the bowling green has been part of the fabric of our towns and villages since the 1940s. Back in the late 1950s, early 60s, most large public parks, working social & sport clubs and pubs had a bowling green.

However, during the last twenty years, we have seen a steady loss of these facilities. When I worked for Birmingham City Council back in the 1980s I myself looked after several greens - only one now remains. Likewise, when I worked for Telford and Wrekin Council we manged several bowling greens within the borough, however, due to the austerity cutbacks, many have now been passed over to the individual clubs to maintain and manage.

An article in the Sunday Post, back in 2015, spoke of this worrying trend, stating that, “Bowling clubs are closing at a rate of one a month leaving the future of the popular pastime in peril. In some cases it’s because committee chiefs have struggled to maintain membership numbers. But in others the closures are down to members voting to sell off grounds to developers in exchange for huge cash windfalls. Dozens of prestigious greens, including one previously considered Edinburgh’s best, have been sold to house builders clamouring for town centre land. In total, 50 bowling clubs have closed since 2010, and there were 13,000 fewer registered players last year when compared to five years earlier.”

Having spoken to a number of local bowlers and greenkeepers in Shropshire where I live, they have said that there had been several clubs closed in the Shropshire leagues due to loss of membership and the fact they struggle to find the funds to maintain the green. I read with interest a blog on Bowls Central, that was published in 2018, that concurs with the current state of bowls and has suggestions on how we can increase membership and retain these valuable assets.

One of the biggest problems for clubs is the ongoing cost of maintenance of the green. When I was managing some council greens back in the late 1990s, the annual maintenance for the upkeep of a council bowling green was around £6,000 per year, which included end of season renovations.

There is no doubt the cost now is a lot more. A typical end of season renovation is likely to cost around £2,000 alone. At the end of the day, like all of our sporting facilities, there will always be a cost to bear, to maintain a natural grass playing surface.

Whether you hire in contractors or do the work yourselves, there will always be a price for time and for resources required to undertake the work. The key for me is that clubs need to have a good look at themselves and see how they can raise the amount of money required to complete the maintenance of their facilities.

In my opinion, too many clubs are not charging enough for membership fees. Quite often many clubs only charge between £30-£50 per year and a match fee. This clearly limits the amount of capital clubs could raise. In essence, they are far too cheap for the club facilities on offer.

Clubs need to address this and look at ways of increasing funding by both membership fees and other fundraising initiatives, while at the same time finding ways to bring in new members.

Bowls England, the sport’s governing body, promotes the opportunity for clubs to seek a number of funding initiatives. Every year, millions of pounds worth of grants and awards are available, which could help clubs to buy new equipment and improve their facilities.

Bowls England helps affiliated clubs to find out more information on the funding opportunities available to them by providing a comprehensive report that highlights potential funding opportunities that clubs might be eligible to apply for.

Bowls England also recommends that clubs speak further with their council and/or local Active Partnership for information on additional funding streams and to potentially assist with any funding applications that clubs may make.

Other funding options could be:

Sport England offers a number of funding programmes that are open to sports clubs. 

National Lottery - Lottery Funding is a joint website run by all Lottery funders in the UK. Use the website to search information on current funding programmes across the UK. Alternatively call for details on 0845 275 0000.

The other issue facing clubs is ensuring that they have a better understanding of the value of their greens. If they ever had to replace it, a new green would cost in excess of £150,000. Therefore the £8,000-10,000 that it would cost to maintain a green annually, is really a good investment.

One of the most important tasks of the year is to carry out appropriate end of season renovations, these should be based on an agronomic inspection of the green.

The following activities are generally implemented during autumn renovations and usually carried out in the following order, when conditions allow. The sequence of operations and their intensity will vary from green to green according to the condition of the green at the end of the season.

Mowing the sward, preparing surfaces for renovation. Lower cutting height to about 3-4mm to clean and prepare green for renovation operations. The mower can then be used to clean up the green after scarifying has been completed.

Scarification, removal of unwanted debris. Collect and dispose of arisings. Depending on the severity of the thatch, you may need to scarify several times in different directions. However, in most cases if regular verticutting / grooming has taken place during the growing season, you would probably only be required to scarify in two directions.

Aeration is the decompaction of soil, improving air and gas exchange in the soil profile. Depending on the turf's condition, you can choose to carry out hollow or solid tine spiking. Hollow tines are generally used on a bi-annual basis or when you have a severe thatch problem. Depth of aeration will be determined by the depth of your soil profile and what problems you want to rectify. Hollow tining is best achieved to a depth of between 75-100mm. Solid or slit tines can be set to penetrate deeper, ideally between 150-200mm.

Topdressing restores levels and improves surface drainage. Ensure you use compatible topdressing materials, sands, sand/soil mixes. Spreading can be achieved by several methods, utilising pedestrian or ride-on disc or drop action top spreaders - or by hand using a shovel and a barrow. Best carried out in dry weather. It is important that the topdressings are spread uniformly.

Overseeding restores grass populations. It is important to ensure a good groove or hole is made to receive the seed; good seed to soil contact is essential for seed germination. Good moisture and soil temperatures will see the seed germinate between 7-14 days.

Fertilising, provides nutrients for grass growth. Apply a low N nitrogen fertiliser product.

Investing in your green is an important task to ensure you have a decent playing surface to play bowls on.

Laurence Gale, TurfPro editor

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