Congratulations to Northumberland, which officially has the best night skies in England. Northumberland National Park, and the adjoining Kielder Water and Forest Park, have officially been given Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).
While this is great news for astronomers, and indeed for local businesses who will be able to capitalise on “astro-tourism”, it’s good news for wildlife too.
People born and brought up in urban areas, where it is impossible to escape the constant glow of artificial lighting, may never have experienced the full wonder of the iridescent Milky Way splattered across a pitch black night sky – and they are really missing out, especially at this time of year. There’s nothing quite like a cold, clear, starry winter’s night.
But for wildlife the effects of light pollution are much greater. It interferes with biological rhythms and disrupts behaviour patterns. Bright lights may distract and disorient migratory birds, drawing them off course and sometimes leading them to fly into buildings. Night foraging animals such as bats and mice rely on darkness to hunt, or to provide protection from predators.
The Dark Sky Park area in Northumberland includes 435 square kilometres of Kielder Forest, England’s biggest forest. Planted and managed for timber production, Kielder also encompasses a wide array of habitats within the forest, is home to 60 per cent of the UK’s red squirrel population and boasts birds of prey such as hen harrier, goshawk and osprey, as well as nocturnal species that benefit from the dark skies such as bats and moths.
Dark Sky Park status recognises work that has been done by a range of organisations and local people to maintain low levels of light pollution, and will enable this protection to continue in future, through use of specialised lighting that has less impact, where artificial lighting is unavoidable. Let’s hope this will be an inspiration to the rest of the country to turn down the lights and give wildlife a break at night.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Adviser