Northumberland has been named as home to the largest area of protected night sky in Europe.
The International Dark Skies Association (IDA), based in Tucson, USA, has granted Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status to the combined areas of Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park – covering nearly 1,500 square kilometres of breath-taking scenery between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish border.
The new zone - which will be called the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park (NDSP) - is the first of its kind in England and one of the largest in the world, joining the likes of Death Valley and Big Bend Dark Sky Parks in the USA. Gold tier designation is the highest accolade that the IDA can bestow.
Working with councils, residents, businesses and tourism agencies, the two year campaign to achieve the prestigious status has been spearheaded by Northumberland National Park Authority, Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust and Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society.
Bid chiefs say the move will counter the spread of light pollution and maintain the pristine starry skies overhead. It will also help develop sustainable astro tourism, boost nocturnal wildlife and create a model for high quality, safe and eco-friendly public lighting. Crucially, it will also protect the rural character of an area deemed the nation’s darkest and most tranquil by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and provide opportunities for people to be inspired by the stars.
Elisabeth Rowark, chair of the Northumberland Dark Skies Working Group and Director of the Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust, said: “We have worked so hard together to reach this tremendous day for everyone committed to securing protection for England’s largest area of starry skies.
“We have a wonderful story to tell in terms of our public astronomy outreach and the success of the Kielder Observatory. But this designation as Europe’s largest Dark Sky Park will be a springboard allowing us to do even more. We do not want to turn off the lights, but rather encourage better lighting using the latest technology.
“This is the start of a new chapter for Northumberland where quite literally the sky is the limit.”
Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal for England, added: “I’d like to offer warm support to this development. It is a further boost for Kielder Observatory and stargazing throughout Northumberland National Park. But, more than that, it should have the support of a far wider community than astronomers. The dark night sky is the most universal feature of our environment.
“All humans, everywhere in the world and throughout history, have looked up at the sky and wondered at it. This experience is now denied to most people, because of the background light in towns and cities. It is important to ensure that there will be somewhere in England where young people can fully enjoy a cosmic panorama.”
Northumberland Dark Sky Park has been created from two adjoining areas - Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park.
The joint bid is the first of its kind approved by the IDA. Over 300 light meter readings have been taken over a two-year period by National Park volunteers, amateur astronomers and Forestry Commission rangers, confirming Northumberland retains England’s largest extent of starry skies due to low levels of light pollution.
An audit of external lighting was also undertaken to identify lights which need replacing or adjusting to comply with and exceed IDA guidelines.
A new Lighting Management Plan will guide planning authorities in ensuring new developments take account of the pristine night sky. The park’s darkest areas, which are mostly uninhabited, will remain light-free.
Northumberland County Council has supported the bid and together with Northumberland National Park Authority has endorsed the Lighting Management Plan. A £25m ‘Invest to Save’ project is set to get underway next year to replace up to 16,000 street lighting columns and replace all the existing sodium lanterns with eco-friendly and fully controlled LED units, with the capability to vary the lighting levels, while maintaining public safety. This will significantly reduce light pollution, slash energy and maintenance costs and cut carbon emissions.
A major catalyst for the Northumberland Dark Sky Park initiative has been the phenomenal success of the Kielder Observatory, perched 1200 feet above forest and moorland in Kielder Water & Forest Park. Since the £510,000 facility opened in 2008 it has welcome over 50,000 visitors, eager to experience celestial wonders above this ultra-dark location.
Gary Fildes, founding director of the Kielder Observatory, added: “We have known for a long time that this is a special place, but we also know how fragile a truly dark sky is when so much has been lost to rampant light pollution. We have big plans to develop the Kielder Observatory further and cement its place as the UK’s most successful facility of its kind. Dark Sky Park status will be a big help in this drive. Together with other stargazers. I’m relieved, excited and delighted to see that these magical skies have at last been recognised and protected.”
Councillor Grant Davey, Leader of Northumberland County Council, said: “To get global recognition on such an important stage is excellent for people who live, work or visit Northumberland. I know that residents, businesses and everyone at the council will be very proud of this wonderful achievement.”
Steve Owens, dark skies consultant and chair of the International Dark Sky Association’s development committee, commented: “The quality of Northumberland’s night sky, and the huge efforts made by local communities to preserve them, make Northumberland Dark Sky Park a Gold-Tier site, and one of the best places to stargaze in Europe.”
More Dark Sky Discovery Sites will be created across Northumberland Dark Sky Park, providing places like Cawfields, managed by the Northumberland National Park, on Hadrian’s Wall, where people can pull in and admire the heavens aided by on-site interpretation.
A total of 13 potential sites have been identified. An ambitious astro outreach project will also be announced shortly, involving support for training businesses, visitor collateral and development of event deliverers across the NDSP and wider area.
Further business workshops are also planned to encourage enterprises to tap into the public appetite for stargazing. Hotels and guest houses in the county are already offering dark sky breaks.