Melbury Abbas is one of the best places in the country to view the Milky Way and residents are being asked to help keep it that way.
Not many areas of southern England offer such an opportunity to stargaze. “It’s a very precious, free asset that we have in our parish. We are one of the darkest areas in the UK. And we are one of the darkest parts of the AONB,” Chairman of the Melbury Abbas and Cann Parish Council, William Kenealy, explained.
Parish residents are being asked to help tackle light pollution and back the Cranborne Chase Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s goal of gaining a Dark Sky designation. Tonight (Tuesday) William will ask his fellow councillors to support the initiative. “I’ll try to get all the councillors to get their neighbours and friends to sign up to the support document that the AONB will be circulating.”
William says that official recognition as a place unspoiled by light pollution could encourage off-season visitors. “We have a lot of tourism from cyclists, horse riders and walkers. This will fill in the quieter times of the year in the winter when it is very slow. There are increased numbers of parishioners who are renting out farmhouses or other buildings that used to be farms, because it’s no longer viable to have a farm. That would also benefit them and keep money in the parish,” William said.
William is a director of the Cranborne Chase Landscape Trust, which works in partnership with the AONB to manage volunteers and fundraise. The body has been discussing whether there is potential for an observatory, which would compliment dark skies status. William believes that the Melbury Abbas area could offer a good base for such a facility.
“It is a goal for the Landscape Trust,” he confirmed. “The main problem is finding the land, a location that somebody will either give to the Trust or sell to the Trust. And it has to be reasonably accessible to visitors. The Trust has already been looking for a location for a small visitor centre. If the Trust gained dark sky status, a little observatory could be built to the side of that. They would be tied in together so it could be a visitor centre during the day and at night you could visit the observatory and see the dark sky.”
This week, the AONB has announced its support for the new, national ‘Big Dipper’ campaign. lt has been launched this month by the Dark Sky Alliance, a group representing astronomers and national parks. Big Dipper encourages residents to help conserve dark and starry skies. The AONB stress that reducing night-time light pollution does not necessarily mean having less lighting. Using the correct kind of external lighting is important.
“There are alternative light fixtures that one can install outside your house that pollute a lot less. When we get close to achieving status we will go to the few commercial operations that we have in the parish and see whether they are amenable to changing some of the fixtures into sky-friendly fixtures. And even the prison, possibly. I’m not sure how far we will get with that one,” said William. “If you have an outside, self-activated security lighting running on an automatic sensor then that can make a difference. It means that not an awful lot of light is going up into the sky. That is something simple everyone can do.”
Amanda Scott, the AONB Dark Skies Advisor, has some more tips. Outdoor lights should point downwards and should be shielded, she advises. Shoppers should also choose LEDs, which emit warm colours, rather than the bright white or blue lighting that can blot out our view of the stars. The power of a light is usually listed on the packaging, measured by its lumen output. 500 lumens is usually all you need to illuminate your back garden.
William says Melbury Abbas and Cann have a head start in the campaign to cut light pollution. “One of the unique aspects of our parish is that we don’t have any streetlights. There are a few parking lot lights at Melbury Motors, but there are no street lights.”
Melbury Abbas and Cann is currently working on its Neighbourhood Plan, a document which will guides the parish’s future development. William would like that blueprint to address dark sky status and encourage practices that preserve the view of the stars. “It fits very well with the kind of objectives we have for ecological tourism and preserving the natural environment,” said William, adding, “It can be part of one of our policies that we are supporting the Dark Sky initiative.”
William says that as well as tourism benefits, preserving the dark skies is a goal for everyone living in the area. “If we get protected status, it’ll be good for animal life and it’s good for the body, mind and soul, being able to see the stars at night, just like our ancestors did.”
If you’re still unconvinced by the value of our dark skies then the Cranborne Chase AONB has arranged two, guided stargazing events later this year. They will be held on Tuesday 13th November at Ansty Pick Your Own and on Thursday 13thDecember at The New Remembrance Hall in Charlton. Both of the two-hour sessions start at 7pm and cost £5 for adults.