Photo by Mike Dickson.
Plans have been revealed to create what would be the third largest area of protected starry dark sky in the world, in Northumberland.
Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Northumberland National Park Authority are consulting on securing dark sky status for nearly 400 sq miles of spectacular countryside, which could drive tourism in the region.
The designation is awarded by Tuscon, USA-based International Dark Skies Association, which recognises just 12 such preserves worldwide, including Big Bend National Park, Texas, and Mount Megantic in Quebec.
Project chiefs are consulting residents, parish councils and businesses to explain the proposals and gauge feedback before any application is made.
If successful, Kielder Water and Forest Park would become England’s first Dark Sky Park, while adjoining Northumberland National Park would be Europe’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, both committed to reducing light pollution and engaging the public about dark skies.
Elisabeth Rowark, Director of the Kielder Water & Development Trust, explained what it would mean for locals: “Northumberland is a magical place both by night and day.
“Dark Sky status would allow us to protect, cherish and promote our natural nightscapes. But gaining public support is the key.
“We are already benefiting from dark sky tourism in the shape of the successful £450,000 Kielder Observatory, which has drawn 30,000 people since opening in 2008. Star camps also attract hundreds of observers every year.
“It’s crucial to understand that Dark Sky status does not mean turning lights off.
“ Rather it is about working with people and Northumberland County Council to create better and less wasteful lighting and promoting the night sky as an asset for the region.”
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Northumberland has more dark skies than anywhere else in England.
Light pollution means that over 85% of the UK’s population has never seen a truly dark sky.
Since the start of the year, Forestry Commission wildlife rangers, and stargazers from Kielder Observatory and Newcastle astronomical societies, National Park Rangers and volunteers have taken hundreds of light metre readings across the proposed dark sky area on clear, moonless nights.
Duncan Wise, who is leading the Dark Sky Reserve Project for the Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “Dark Sky status will help us protect the quality of the night sky. With public support we believe we can make this happen. It will be a spur to sustainable tourism, help cut energy costs and benefit nocturnal wildlife.”
The National Park Authority has written to all National Park residents explaining the process and inviting comments on proposed core zone to be protected from light pollution in the darkest part of the park.
Duncan Wise added: “We want to build a consensus and shape our plans with the public. But what a fantastic opportunity we have to protect our cherished skies.
“No one benefits from poor lighting. It takes away the beauty of the night sky, often disturbs sleep patterns and can have a negative impact on our wildlife.
“By acting now we can protect the special quality of the National Park that is valued by residents and visitors alike for future generations to enjoy.”
Pam Warhurst, Forestry Commission England Chair, said: “I really hope Kielder Forest and the surrounding area can secure this fantastic international honour.
“Woodlands and forests are great places to appreciate nature in the daytime and as night falls and the stars begin to appear, being away from lights makes them a more vivid and spectacular sight.
“The wonderful remoteness of Kielder Water & Forest Park has meant we have been able to encourage people to gaze at the stars there for nearly 15 years.”