Chasing Stars: The Importance of Conserving Dark Skies
True Grace sits just outside Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a stunning stretch of land that crosses four counties and is a designated Dark Sky Reserve.
When did you last look up at the night sky? Stargazing is a particular kind of magic, filling us with awe and reconnecting us with nature. In fact, stargazing locations across the world saw a rise in astro-tourism during the Covid pandemic, with low air travel leading to clearer skies.
But, so often, light pollution muddies the views, cutting us off from the astronomical world. In fact, 90% of the UK’s population and two-thirds of the world’s population live under heavily-polluted night skies.
If you live in the Cranborne Chase area, however, your nighttime view might be noticeably more spectacular than most. On a clear night, you might even spot the Milky Way.
- Orion over Melbury Downs
Straddling parts of Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset, Cranborne Chase is a nationally designated AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), rich in historical and archeological heritage sites. In 2019, it became the 14th International Dark Sky Reserve in the world – the first AONB in the country to be designated in its entirety.
If you live in the Cranborne Chase area, your nighttime view might be noticeably more spectacular than most.
Steve Tonkin is Cranborne Chase’s Dark Sky Advisor. With a life-long passion for astronomy, Steve has spent over 30 years advocating for responsible outdoor lighting. He came out of retirement to accept the role of Dark Sky Advisor, having previously supported the AONB’s Dark Sky bid as a volunteer. “My predecessor had done a brilliant job getting the Dark Sky designation”, he said, “and my job now is maintaining that status.” In particular, this involves working with businesses, residents and councils to reduce the number of non-compliant lights in the area.
So, what exactly does it mean to be a Dark Sky Reserve?
“It’s a designation given by the International Dark Sky Association, which was founded in the late 1980s by astronomers at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona”, says Steve. “It’s given to public or private land that is legally protected for scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment purposes, in recognition of exceptional night sky quality.”
- King Alfred's Tower & Melbury Downs: Paul Howell @pictorimages
Dark skies are healthier for humans and wildlife
While the sight of a vast expanse of stars glittering above us never fails to make us catch our breath, there are actually a wide range of benefits of dark night skies that go beyond the aesthetic. As well as upping energy bills, unnecessary levels of artificial light at night can disrupt our circadian rhythms, interrupting sleep patterns and sometimes even leading to more serious health issues like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Consistent exposure to bright light at night has been linked to reduced cognition and creativity, attention loss, memory impairment and immune system suppression.
Many birds and animals are also affected by stray light at night, impacting their breeding cycles, feeding habits and migratory patterns. "When I first started in this role, I spoke to a local farmer who would get up at four o’clock in the morning for milking and he would hear robins and wrens singing”, says Steve. “He knew that they shouldn’t be singing at that time and suspected it was something to do with his lights. We helped him to correct his lighting and it completely changed how the surrounding wildlife behaved.”
What’s more, the UK’s flying insect population has declined by 60% over the past 20 years. This dramatic decline is due in part to the effects of light pollution, as well as climate change, the use of pesticides and habitat loss. “It is going to take us a long time to reverse the effects of the climate crisis but light pollution is one problem that we can literally solve with the flick of a switch”, says Steve.
Plants, too, respond to light pollution. Artificial light – such as street lights – can eliminate a tree’s natural light cycle, confusing flowering patterns and preventing trees from entering the dormant state necessary to survive cold winters.
- Annie Spratt
Doing your bit for a dark sky
Whether or not you live in a Dark Sky Reserve, there are a number of ways you can help reduce light pollution in your area. Steve recommends working through the five principles of responsible outdoor lighting.
- 1. Is the light necessary?
- 2. Is it targeted?
- 3. Is it an appropriate brightness?
- 4. Is it controlled (on a time switch or controlled by motion detectors, for example)?
- 5. Is it a low colour temperature (more orange than blue)?
The final point on the list is surprisingly important. “If you imagine a piece of metal being heated up, first it becomes a dull red, then orange, and then white hot, and finally blue hot”, Steve explains. “So, while a blue light might appear cooler, it’s actually a much higher colour temperature than orange bulbs. Not only does blue light scatter a lot more than orange but it is also harmful to many insects, and even deadly to fruit flies”
Contrary to what you might think, these responsible lighting principles can also lead to better nighttime security.
- Perseid Meteors: Grant Privett
- Steve with young stargazer: Mel Capper
True Grace is proud that we were recently designated a 'dark sky friendly' business by Steve and his team.
If you live in the Cranborne Chase AONB, why not apply to become dark sky accredited? Cranborne Chase’s Dark Sky Accreditation Scheme allows local businesses, farms and even villages with minimal light pollution to receive an official dark sky accreditation. Tisbury Railway Station took advantage of the scheme to become the first ‘dark sky friendly’ station in the UK. True Grace is proud that we were recently designated a 'dark sky friendly' business by Steve and his team.
Finally, don’t forget to take advantage of clear nights to spot your favourite constellations!
Keep an eye out for Cranborne Chase’s stargazing events or organise your own evening expedition to one of the AONB’s top 10 stargazing locations. Wrap up warm, fill a flask with hot chocolate and head out with friends or family to marvel at the wonders of the universe. Simply heavenly.