In 2016 the South Downs National Park became the world’s newest International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR), the 2nd in England and only 11th in the world. What better way to mark the occasion than a two-week festival in the dark winter months?
Whether you live in or close to the South Downs there are stargazing events happening near you. Local astronomy groups will be pointing their telescopes to the heavens at special star parties, there will be talks on nocturnal wildlife, night walks and more.
“The winter sky is a great time to search for the Great Orion Nebula in the southern sky,” says ‘Dark Skies’ Dan Oakley, Lead Ranger for the National Park. “The cross of Cygnus the Swan is overhead, shining within the Milky Way and the brightest star in the sky – Sirius – lies just south of Orion.”
If you have trouble remembering the Roman or Greek names Dan suggests using a little modern mythology: “Sometimes when I’m talking about the night sky I change Taurus to Voldemort and Orion to Harry, with his wand replacing the sword. That certainly helps them to stick in some people’s minds!”
The highlight of the festival will be Stargazing South Downs on Saturday 18 February. During the day the South Downs Planetarium in Chichester will have special showings of the winter night skies (booking necessary). Celebrations continue in the evening at Midhurst Rother College in Midhurst with experienced astronomers on hand to show you the highlights of the night sky, hands-on activities for children, the chance to learn how to get the most out of your own telescope, a programme of talks and astrophotography workshops.
See the full programme for Stargazing South Downs in Midhurst and book your place on an astrophotography workshop.
“There is nothing like seeing someone discover the stars for the first time,” says Dan. “It’s then that people appreciate dark skies overhead are as important as the National Park’s beautiful rolling landscapes. With properly dark skies in the South East of England under threat, the skies above the South Downs are worth protecting.”
As well as helping us see the stars and planets, dark skies are vital for many nocturnal animals. There are about 16 protected species of bats breeding in the UK and most of the UK’s 800 species of larger moths are strictly nocturnal including the big and colourful hawk-moths which you can spot in the South Downs. Barn owls are unmistakable, appearing like floating white ghosts as they patrol field margins for mice and shrews whilst tawny owls are commonly found in woodland with their bodies streaked in brown and grey for camouflage.
The National Park Authority is now in the final stages of producing the first Local Plan for the National Park to put good planning in place that puts landscapes first, cares for views and night skies; supports the local economy, promotes recreation; enables affordable local housing; and makes sure that our green spaces are properly valued and cared for.
There are a few things you can do too to help protect dark skies and the wildlife which depend on them. “Check the outdoor lighting around your home,” says Dan. “Is it really needed? If not, turn it off, or if it is, make sure it’s fully shielded so light is directed down on to the ground. Buy lamps under 500 lumens to reduce light pollution. Also spread the word! Tell your family, friends and neighbours why dark-sky friendly lighting is important. The more people that know, the better protected our dark skies will be.”
Now we just need to keep our fingers crossed for clear skies…