A huge tract of the North East will today be officially awarded star quality status as it becomes England’s first dark sky park.
An area covering nearly 1,500 square kilometres between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish border will be designated as the largest area of protected night sky in Europe
The International Dark Skies Association (IDA), based in Tucson in the United States has granted Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status to the combined areas of Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park.
The new zone - called the Northumberland Dark Sky Park - is 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.
With 80% of people never having experienced a truly dark and star-spangled sky, the new status will give planners guidance in countering the spread of light pollution.
It will also help develop sustainable astro tourism, protect nocturnal wildlife and create a model for high quality, safe and eco-friendly public lighting.
Crucially, it will also safeguard the rural character of an area deemed the nation’s darkest and most tranquil by the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Elisabeth Rowark, chairperson of the Northumberland Dark Skies Working Group and Director of the Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust, said: “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, said: “I’d like to offer warm support to this development.
“The dark night sky is the most universal feature of our environment. 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.”
Duncan Wise, national park visitor development officer who two years ago began pulling together the steering group, said: “It is not just about conserving the dark night but also celebrating that we have something special above us.
“It is also about encouraging tourism businesses because our visitor season is short and star gazing is a perfect activity for winter.”
Northumberland Dark Sky Park has been created from two adjoining areas - Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park, where the Forestry Commission manages England’s largest forest and Northumbrian Water Europe’s largest man-made reservoir.
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 the park and county council planning authorities in ensuring new developments take account of the pristine night sky.
Northumberland County Council has supported the bid and together with Northumberland National Park Authority has endorsed the lighting management plan.
A £25m project is set to start 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. This will significantly reduce light pollution, slash energy and maintenance costs and cut carbon emissions.
Gary Fildes is founding director of the Kielder Observatory, 1,200 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.
He said: “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.”