FORESTRY chief Pam Warhurst has praised the sky-high ambitions of rural allies in Northumberland.
Ms Warhurst, chairwoman of the Forestry Commission, visited Kielder Observatory to support a bid to create Europe’s largest area of protected night sky in Northumberland.
Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust, Northumberland National Park Authority and Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society are preparing the bid to the International Dark Sky Association based in the United States.
If successful it will help promote and preserve the biggest area of dark skies left anywhere in England and help minimise light pollution.
Built high above Kielder village, the £450,000 observatory has proved a hit with the public since opening in 2008, attracting nearly 35,000 visitors.
It will soon be re-equipped with even more powerful telescopes.
Pam Warhurst said: “The observatory is an inspiring place and a tremendous asset to the North East and Borders.
“The night sky is a very precious resource which in many areas of England has become a pale shadow of its former starry self because of light pollution.
“The bid to designate a dark sky area linking Kielder Water and Forest Park with Northumberland National Park, while also engaging communities and visitors in explaining the wonders of the night sky, is truly exciting.
“At Kielder the Forestry Commission has worked hard to create vibrant wildlife habitats and this project will enhance another vital aspect of our natural environment – the night sky.”
Partners in the Dark Sky bid have consulted councils, businesses and the public in the proposed dark sky areas.
A successful bid would see Kielder Water and Forest Park become England’s first Dark Sky Park and Northumberland National Park would be Europe’s most extensive Dark Sky Reserve.
A funding package is now being finalised to undertake the required lighting audits, which will help identify where more dark sky friendly lighting could be installed.
Gary Fildes, founding director of the Kielder Observatory and a member of the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society, said: “It was a thrill to have Pam Warhurst at the observatory and she was impressed by what has been achieved in this fabulous corner of England.
“The facility, underpinned by the hard work of Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society volunteers, has been the catalyst for much that has happened in terms of the dark sky bid.
“ If we are successful in gaining added protection for the area it will create a long-lasting legacy, enabling future generations to enjoy the wonderful starry sky that inspired me and my fellow stargazers.”
Meanwhile, Northumberland Tourism reports that news of the bid has already sparked an increase in inquiries from people wishing to visit the county.
Chief executive Giles Ingram said:
“Since the bid was announced we have had a number of inquiries from the media and national travel trade, as well as expressions of interest from visitors. It simply goes to demonstrate the genuine interest and value placed on attaining such status. This is a superb opportunity for the tourism industry.”
The dark sky status would cover nearly 400 square miles of Northumberland countryside.
Worldwide there are just 12 such preserves, including the two largest in Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA, and Mount Megantic in Quebec, Canada.
Elisabeth Rowark, director of the Kielder Water and Development Trust, said: “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 Kielder Observatory and star camps also attract hundreds of observers every year.
“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.”
The observatory is an inspiring place and a tremendous asset to the North East and Borders