Embracing the Darkness
By Dan Oakley, South Downs National Park Dark Skies Officer
When people think about conservation and protecting natural landscapes, the immediate tendency is to think about the wildlife at ground level. It’s an understandable reaction – it is right under your feet and at eyeline after all. You’ll find that nearly all National Park, AONB and other protected areas management plans all have plenty of guidance and information about protecting the daytime, but there is a lack of awareness and policies for the natural habitat of night. Thankfully though, this is changing. A growing number of dedicated dark sky places and a rapidly expanding scientific evidence base is showing that the effect of light pollution impacts on many different aspects of our society and nature. What was once a purely astronomical issue related to seeing stars, is now becoming an important inclusion in the future protection of the natural integrity of landscapes and wildlife. More and more places are embracing the darkness and I was lucky enough to in the right place and the right time to capitalise on this issue.
I started as a Ranger for the South Downs National Park Authority doing the usual jobs; managing volunteers and running conservation projects. But before this, I was an exceptionally average Physicist working for British Aerospace. Deciding that a career change was needed (I was 30 at the time) I enrolled at the Open University to do a masters in Environmental Policy and then took a more practical foundation degree in Wildlife Management at Sparsholt University. Whilst I was doing this, I took on the always-important volunteer work with the South Downs and started looking at dark skies and what we could do to better engage within this niche issue. From the early glow of that volunteer project, it started a 15-year journey that’s taken me from a Ranger to Dark Sky Officer to the chairman of the International Dark Sky Association places committee and, after sadly being on the wrong end of redundancies, setting up my own business as a dark sky and light pollution consultant.
What helped me do this was establishing the South Downs National Park as an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2016. More and more places are achieving this accreditation and it is not to be underestimated – it is a substantial piece of work that needs commitment and resources. To become an International Dark Sky Place, a managing authority must achieve several requirements. Firstly the Park had to prove we were dark enough and after driving around the downs for three years at night into the very small hours with a good supply of coca-cola, we found that not only were we dark enough, but the dark sky map we produced would help us create effective planning policies to protect the skies against bad develop.
Added to this we then knew where we could hold engagement opportunities under our best quality skies, which were always a bit of fun. (Make it a bucket list to look at Saturn rings through a telescope – a proper wow moment). Credit does go to our local lighting authorities (Hampshire, West and East Sussex) who retro-fitted compliant street lighting before we even started with our application. Without this action, we couldn’t have achieved reserve status.
In the end, it took about 4 years to complete the application that fitted around the day job. I did think that after designation, things would return to normal and I’d be back behind a chainsaw, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. More planning applications, more popularity and more interest - it seems to grow with every year. I’ve been lucky enough to do some very cool things as a result of being a Dark Sky Officer; from doing hundreds of talks both to local parishes and international audiences at lighting and astronomy conferences, to now being a Planetarium presenter and my own personal highlight, doing a piece on the BBC’s Sky at Night.
And after our success of that designation the South Downs continues to be a leader in the battle of photons. We developed thorough and effective planning polices/guidance documents and established the UK Dark Sky Partnership that includes other dark sky places and professional organisations. Through this partnership, we have kept the issue in the minds of Government and continue to forge new relationships, capitalise on opportunities and evolve this issue as more evidence emerges.
And evidence is showing, artificial lighting at night (Or ALAN – catchy) disrupts the natural rhythms of nature. We’ve all seen the obvious impacts. A bright light in a dark landscape attracts wildlife and at the same time acts as a barrier. As a result, the integrity of our habitats is placed under additional stress from ALAN. But it gets worse. The same bright lights that keep you awake at night when you can’t put your tablet down has the same effect on wildlife. The white light disrupts the production of Melatonin which plays an important role in the way our (and wildlife) bodies repair when we sleep. Too much bright light alters Melatonin levels and puts our bodies into stress. So not only does light act as a physical and visual intrusion to a landscape but it penetrates within our bodies.
Now all dark sky places try and push for the right light, in the right place at the right time. We ask that lighting follows some basic principles that you can adopt in your facilities and places. They are
- Useful: Light should be justified with a clear benefit.
- Targeted: Light should be only directed where it is needed, and upward light is avoided.
- Controlled: Lights should only be on when needed.
- Colour: Light should be the right colour and avoid white/blue spectral emissions.
- Designed: Professional designers should be consulted for larger and more complex non-domestic schemes to ensure obtrusive light is minimised and plans adherer to relevant standards.
So when you’re out and about protecting your places and landscapes against the perils of modern society, remember to wait till dark and look up occasionally and remind yourself that there is more unknown wildlife above your head than there is beneath your feet. Treat stars as your species and by protecting them, you will protect all of nature. Embrace the darkness.
Dan Oakley (Director), Darkscape Consulting Ltd
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