Darks skies put south west on the stargazing map

A picture of the Milky way taken from the Dark Sky Park.
A picture of the Milky way taken from the Dark Sky Park.
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Even from the days before mankind could string a sentence together, the darkness of night has been something to fear ... but that age old fear is being turned on its head in the south-west, where the night has delivered a tremendous shot in the arm.

When Forestry Commission Scotland successfully campaigned to have Galloway Forest Park awarded Dark Sky Park status in 2009, many thought that a new kind of tourism market would open up – and they were right;

As Britain’s first and only Dark Sky Park – and one of only five at ‘Gold Tier’ standard around the world, it put the area very firmly on the international tourism map. It is already bringing stargazers – and increased visitor spend - to the area.

The success of an idea that initially struck many as being a little off-beat has made people more aware of the issue of light pollution and added momentum to a desire to tackle it. As a result, 2013 in Dumfries & Galloway is going to be even darker – and greener!

Street lighting, as well as lighting in industrial, retail and leisure parks, requires a significant amount of power – and a lot of money – to keep burning. It also generates a lot of CO2 and much of the light produced is directed up in to the night sky, rather than on to the ground where it is needed. Its wasteful of energy, money and light – and also diminishes much of the night sky’s magnificence. Simply by changing the type and style of lighting in these areas can make both financial, energy and carbon savings – and it helps to reveal more of what is perhaps nature’s most magical and breathtaking sights.

Dumfries & Galloway Council has now secured £7.4 million pounds in capital investment to change lights across the region to more efficient and Dark Sky friendly LED and dimmable Cosmopolis fittings.

Glentrool village - the only village within the boundary of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park – has already reaped the benefit of a lighting change. Thanks to a community led project in 2011 the village swapped its familiar orange sodium lights for a more open and stark white light of the LED systems.

Morag Paterson, a local professional photographer, said: “Apart from the star gazing benefits I think there’s a general consensus in the community that the lights have a cleaner, fresher feel, closer to daylight than the old sodium glow.”

Now, where before an attempt to stargaze would have been a pointless exercise, you can now turn your face skyward and see the night sky with ease. The new system casts all the light towards the ground and because it’s white light, it’s much easier to identify colours - something that cannot easily be done under orange light.

Under the new programme, Dalry and Carsphairn were the first two towns/villages to have their lighting changed over December and January, with most people welcoming the switch. Young people in Dalry highlighted the fact that almost over night the village had gone from feeling claustrophobic to feeling light and spacious and a resident in New Galloway said that the new lights picked out features that hadn’t been noticed before and made the village look more attractive.

But in terms of Dark Skies the real difference comes when observing the night sky from the surrounding area.

Morag added: “Night sky enthusiasts and photographers will soon start to see the difference as the programme of installation of the new lights sweeps across the region. The changes will be subtle to start with but once complete the faint orange glow seen as you drive along the A75 will steadily disappear as the lights get changed.

“Even in an apparently very dark area you often find that the camera has picked out an orange glow from distant settlements. We’ve already had photographers out on the front lawn until well into the night experimenting with capturing star trails and the Milky Way, easily visible to the naked eye on clear nights.

“This should have a very positive impact on tourism – it would be nice to see this rolled out across the entire country in time.”

Forestry Commission Scotland’s Keith Muir, the person who has done most to bring about the Dark Sky Park and promote the benefits across the region, said:

“We can’t and won’t take credit for changing the lights but the dark sky park is recognised as the stimulus and we’ve worked extremely closely with and advising the regional council lighting team and the carbon reduction team who have brought about this change.

“It’s a fantastic move for the area. Being the UKs first Dark Sky Park is a huge asset for us. It is a specific draw that is attracting people to the area who might not otherwise come, something that will only improve as the area’s reputation grows and the private sector takes full opportunity of this amazing asset. It’s an investment in the future.

“Other parts of the UK are now looking to become part of the Dark Sky family but we should be very proud of the fact that we are still pushing boundaries and leading the way. We can now honestly claim the right to state that ‘Dumfries & Galloway is the region of Astronomy’”

Calum Edgar the region’s Street lighting Engineer said: “This change of thinking will make a huge difference to the residents of Dumfries and Galloway in terms of their viewing of the night sky.

“It is also a sensible and practical investment for the future that will change the face of Dumfries & Galloway. The changeover to modern energy efficient lighting will reduce energy consumption, reduce maintenance costs and reduce the council’s carbon footprint.

“With energy prices set to rise year on year and a commitment to reduce CO2 by 20% by 2020 we felt that it was time to start making changes. The costing model we have used indicates payback in 6-8 years leaving a further 12-14 years of savings over the lifetime of the lanterns”

The Dark Sky Park isn’t aiming to tell people to switch lights off but will emphasise the need to make sure that the right lights, correctly fitted, are chosen for specific jobs. It’s also worth considering whether private lights can be put on a motion sensor or timer if they don’t need to be on all night.

People across the area are being invited to join in with International Dark Sky Week (5 to 11 April) and think about how the lights they use affect other people. Why not ‘switch off’ unnecessary lights – or lights that are shining where they shouldn’t be - and see how it changes the way you think about light. Make the decision to adjust your lighting, use it appropriately and save some money, reduce the carbon emissions and open up the Dark Sky.