Campaigners hope that the Shaftesbury area could soon be recognised for its dark night skies. But the project team has been told not all the area is dark enough yet.
Alfred heard about plans to meet the target.
Most Shaftesbury area visitors love seeing our stunning slopes and scenery by day. But Amanda Scott thinks that our night skies, unspoiled by the glow of city streetlights, could encourage new visitors, especially in the winter. She says that Dark Sky status has provided an economic boost elsewhere.
“Exmoor has been a Dark Sky Reserve for about twelve years now. They’re starting to see benefits to tourism businesses,” said Amanda. “It is wonderful to go out and look at the Milky Way in the middle of summer, or the Perseid meteor showers. Light pollution can also affect our circadian rhythms, our sleep patterns. That’s not good for our health and wellbeing. There are links between light pollution and some cancers and there’s wildlife health as well. Bats and moths are affected adversely by light pollution.”
Amanda is the Dark Sky Advisor with the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB for short. AONBs could be described as the next stage down from a National Park. It aims to protect and conserve our special landscape. The area starts around one mile from Shaftesbury town centre and includes the nearby beauty spots of Fontmell Down, Melbury Hill and Win Green.
The proposed Dark Sky Reserve would have a very dark ‘core’ surrounded by a less dark area. “We don’t want anyone that’s in the buffer zone to feel less important. You have a buffer zone around the edge, within the AONB. It is to protect that dark core from light that comes from outside,” said Amanda.
“Near Shaftesbury or Warminster, you’re going to get light coming in which then crosses into the AONB. We have quite a large core because a lot of the AONB is quite dark. Up to about two kilometres away from the AONB edge will be core.” She added that the buffer zone would be wider around Blandford Camp, because of the extra-bright lights there.
Surprisingly, one of southern England’s darkest places is just seven miles from Shaftesbury. “That’s near the Ansty Pick Your Own Farm – one of our top ten stargazing sites. There are two main belts of dark readings – around the middle, where Shaftesbury is heading roughly eastwards and also the river valleys in the south.”
Amanda and her team have donned hi-vis jackets and toured the area at night recording darkness levels during their dark sky audits. “People would come out. They would think we were booking their cars because we had clipboards. When we explained to them what we were doing, people were so enthusiastic and supportive. One of the things often said was, ‘I know, my lights aren’t quite compliant but I always turn them off at night, because I love looking at the dark sky. We heard that so many times.”
The AONB submitted their application for Dark Sky Reserve status to the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association at the end of July. “They’ve been very complimentary about the level of work done on our bid, and the amount of analysis we’ve done,” said Amanda.
But it’s not all been good news. The readings reveal that the level of overall darkness needs to improve significantly. “It was about 10%. It was quite low. That’s why they can’t give us full status. If we’re successful, we will have provisional status.”
Amanda says the IDA has given a darkness level target. “67% of lights within the core part of the proposed dark sky reserve need to be dark sky friendly.” She says that making the core area smaller wouldn’t really change the situation and if the AONB achieves that 67% darkness rating, there will still be more work to do.
“If we achieve full status, we have to achieve much better compliance within a ten-year time frame. We would want to work with businesses and see what could be done. The International Dark Skies Association does recognise that there have to be exceptions. Highways England has regulations that have to be met on its main trunk roads and we have some of those going through the AONB. Those are national regulations,” said Amanda.
Guy’s Marsh prison lights also impact on the adjacent AONB. “I don’t know much about what the prison’s regulations are in terms of lighting and security. If they have regulations that must be met, they have to be met. We can talk to them and just see if we can achieve something better.”
The challenge of moving from 10% to 67% darkness seems immense but Amanda says that Wiltshire Council could provide the key to dark sky success. “They are about to upgrade all their street lighting over the next two years. It will make a big impact. Streetlights, as well as domestic and business lights, are counted towards the 67%.”
Those new streetlights will make a difference to the dark sky ratings. “It will be up to 40 or 45%. It’s much closer but we recognise it’s a challenge,” said Amanda.
She is keen to dispel some myths. Farmers will still be allowed to light up their land for night-time outdoor work and security lighting won’t be outlawed. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at whether they’re the right kind of lights. Are they pointing downwards? If farms want to upgrade their lighting to dark sky friendly, we are going to be able to provide a limited contribution from a fund,” she said.
Amanda is hoping that the IDA will rule on the AONB application imminently. “We would expect to hear by mid-September. It takes 4-6 weeks.” But if the IDA don’t award the provisional Dark Sky Reserve status, Amanda says her team won’t give up. “I think we would want to go on. We’re really committed to this. We would ask where did we fail? What can we do to improve that?”
You can find out more on the Cranborne Chase AONB’s designated Dark Skies website, ChasingStars.org.uk.