Extraordinary Exmoor: keeping the skies dark

In December’s BBC Sky at Night Magazine astronomer Will Gater reveals his advice for exploring Exmoor’s spectacular night skies.

Here, Will talks to Dan James of the Exmoor National Park Authority about the moor’s International Dark Sky Reserve and plans for the future. 



How did the idea to apply for the International Dark Sky Reserve status come about?

It was the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and some people approached us asking whether we wanted to do some related events.

As a National Park we’re here to conserve and enhance the special qualities of the area and I guess the dark skies were something that we’d overlooked.

But actually we are quite unique. One of the special qualities of our area is that we have dark skies.

We had a whole series of events and we were blown away by the interest that it sparked in our dark skies, and the enthusiasm that both communities and businesses had shown.

It was actually Steve Owens - the coordinator for the International Year of Astronomy across the UK and a member of the International Dark Sky Association committee – who said "why don’t you look at becoming a Dark Sky Reserve? There aren’t any in Europe you could become the first."

We quite like a challenge and so that’s what we did in 2011. At the time we were only the second in the world.


What was the support from the community like?

There was absolutely phenomenal support. Every single community, in terms of the parish councils, all gave written support to the idea. That was something quite unique I think. Everybody saw the benefits.


Was there anything you had to change or do to get the certification?

There were things like floodlights on football pitches that were on an automatic timer and stayed on until about 11pm, regardless of whether anybody was using the outdoor pitch at the time.

So we were able to facilitate discussions to control them better, but obviously we don’t have a lot of statutory powers to go back and tell people to remove things that are already there.

What we were able to do was tighten up our planning guidance, however. Now there is supplementary guidance so we can control any new developments in terms of the lighting being used.


Have you seen increased numbers of astronomers and tourists visiting Exmoor,as a result?     

I think we probably have. Some of the tourism providers say they’ve seen an increase in bookings from astronomy groups.

When we did a visitor survey in 2016, 14 per cent of our visitors said that being a dark sky reserve was one of the main reasons they came to Exmoor, and we’ve seen that steadily grow.


What’s the future for Exmoor’s dark skies?

We want to build on our status. We’ve just adopted a new local plan for all of our planning work, which has policies very much about protecting the dark skies of Exmoor. We want to keep our skies dark.


Are there plans to have an observatory sited somewhere on Exmoor?    

We would absolutely love one. Certainly we’ve been looking at other examples like up at Kielder Observatory, and emulating that here is certainly a long-term aim.


Pick up the December 2017 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine to find out more about how you can enjoy Exmoor's dark skies.

Image: Dan James is the Sustainable Economy Manager at Exmoor National Park authority
Credit: ENPA
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