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 and 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, chairman of the Northumberland Dark Skies Working Group and director of the Kielder Water and 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, offered his support.
He said: “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 and 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.
More than 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.
Coun John Riddle, chairman of Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “Creation of the Northumberland Dark Sky Park is recognition that our National Parks and protected rural areas are defined by their skyscape as well as their landscape. Starry nights, tranquil villages, rolling hills and forests are all part of the Northumberland experience that visitors love.
“This move will reclaim the night and protect this rich legacy for future generations.
“It is sad that so much of the UK has lost its view of the heavens.
“Wasteful light pollution snubs out the stars and over 80% of people have never seen the Milky Way.
“But here at least the Universe can be admired, shared and cherished by everyone.
“We have already created a Dark Sky Discovery Site at Cawfields on Hadrian’s Wall and many Northumberland villages and tourism businesses are gearing up to welcome stargazers.”
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 1,200 feet above forest and moorland in Kielder Water and 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: “This announcement is terrific news for all of us who have campaigned for a decade or more to protect Northumberland’s night skies.
“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.”
Coun Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council, said it was great news for the area.
He added: “This shows officially that Northumberland has been recognised as having some of the darkest skies in the country and that they are valued by our residents and communities.
“Not only will we have England’s first dark sky park, it will be the largest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world meaning international recognition for this area.
“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 chairman of the International Dark Sky Association’s development committee, said: “The IDA are delighted to recognise Northumberland Dark Sky Park as the latest addition to our family of International Dark Sky Places.
“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.