Is butterfly park proposal by Hong Kong Golf Club just ‘last-ditch effort’ to save Fanling site from housing development?

  • Management under pressure to give up land for housing, as recommendation report from government-appointed task force looms
  • Club commissions study on ecological value of courses, but critics question motive and effectiveness
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 8:22pm

The Hong Kong Golf Club will open part of its Fanling course to the public for free as a “butterfly sanctuary” late next year, as it faces pressure to give up the exclusive site for housing in a land-starved city.

But critics called the butterfly park a “last-ditch effort” to save the golf course, while an ecologist said the plan would only qualify as “the lowest level of conservation”.

All eyes are on whether a government-appointed advisory task force will suggest taking back the golf course for housing as part of a land supply strategy report due next month.

Is there middle ground in Fanling golf course debate amid city’s housing crisis?

The golf club has unveiled findings of an ecology survey that shows the 107-year-old site is home to about 300 different species, some of them rare or protected.

The proposed 20,000 sq ft butterfly park, which would account for 0.1 per cent of the 172 hectare plot, is slated for completion by next autumn and would attract 50 species, one of which has legal protection in Hong Kong.

“We came up with the idea to develop this butterfly sanctuary, which is very close to the car park ... so even when the golf course is busy, we can accommodate groups, schoolchildren or other people who are interested to come and have a look,” the club’s general manager Ian Gardner said in an interview with the Post.

Even when the golf course is busy, we can accommodate groups, schoolchildren or other people
Ian Gardner, club general manager

The Fanling grounds were identified as one of 18 land supply options by the Task Force on Land Supply, which is due to release its recommendation report next month.

The task force took note of an earlier government-commissioned study, which suggested that some 5,000 flats could be built on the eastern part of the golf course. Another option was to fully develop it for 13,000 flats.

While the group has yet to reveal results of its own public consultation, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme this month found 69 per cent of respondents in favour of converting the site for homes over the option of land reclamation in general.

The club’s management argued that any development would affect its role in hosting international competitions and in developing the sport locally.

Is Fanling golf club getting ‘picked on’ in housing shortage?

Their latest ecology survey, conducted from April, found the Fanling site was home to more than 300 different species, ranging from mammals and reptiles to butterflies. Of these, 89 were rare or protected. The old course was found to be most ecologically valuable of three sections.

The survey also found the site was home to more than a quarter of all the bird species recorded across Hong Kong.

The findings were submitted to the task force.

“People always think that golf courses are of low ecological value … but [this one] seems to be of exceptionally high ecological value for a golf course,” said Paul Leader, director at ecology consultancy AEC, which the club commissioned to conduct the study.

Leader also argued that development of the site may destroy a nearby swamp where some 30 mature Chinese swamp cypress trees were located. The trees are classified as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Hong Kong Golf Club vows not to give up any part of Fanling course for housing

The golf site is also home to two other IUCN Red List “endangered” species – the Reeves’ Turtle and about 50 freshwater crabs of a species endemic to Hong Kong.

However, not all are enthusiastic about the club’s butterfly garden proposal.

“If they really cared about biodiversity and protecting the ecology, the first thing they should do is to change it to an organically managed course [by minimising the use of chemical pesticides], not set up a butterfly garden,” said Billy Hau Chi-hang, a lecturer at HKU’s school of biological sciences.

If they really cared about biodiversity and protecting the ecology, the first thing they should do is to change it to an organically managed course
Billy Hau, biological sciences lecturer

Hau was among a group of ecologists briefed by Leader on the club’s findings in September.

“Otherwise, to me, setting up a butterfly park is just the lowest level of conservation,” he said.

In response to Hau, the golf club said its use of pesticides and fertilisers complied with official guidelines and it tried to use organic products where possible. In the next year, it said, it aims to become a certified Audubon cooperative sanctuary for golf, an international accreditation for courses that reach certain environmental management and wildlife preservation standards.

Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin said the butterfly park was a “last-ditch effort” to save the golf course from the chopping block.

“They’ve talked about their heritage, their valuable trees ... all these can be preserved, even with development,” he said.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Felix Chung Kwok-pan, who supports retaining the golf course, said having the park was “better than nothing”, but added it would be better for the club to open up its facilities on certain weekends to non-members.

The golf course is only open to the public for bookings on weekdays, for HK$1,100 a session.

The Fanling site is leased to the golf club until 2020 for about HK$2.4 million (US$306,000) a year. It has come under fire from critics who say it is occupying prime land for the exclusive benefit of its 2,600 members.

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A club spokeswoman said it would continue to look at opportunities to make its golf facilities more accessible for the purpose of development and training in the sport.

Gardner maintained the course had been “extremely well utilised and very open already” to non-members.

“We do a lot of non-golf-related activities at the club ... but it’s difficult for us to do too much of that because ... unfortunately one excludes the other to a certain extent,” Gardner said.

“We can’t open the golf course for people to wander around looking at trees while golf is being played, because it’s dangerous.”