Yorkshire's National Parks at forefront of major survey to monitor the night skies

Conservationists are launching the biggest survey of its kind to monitor the night skies amid warnings that light pollution could have dramatically increased in the past year.

The countryside charity, the CPRE, is staging its annual star count from Saturday to establish the ability to witness the wonders of the constellations, which has been shown to help boost mental health and well-being.

Last year’s survey recorded far clearer and darker skies, which was attributed to the national lockdown minimising the impact of light pollution as people were confined to their homes to contain the spread of Covid-19.

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However, senior officials at the CPRE have said that they expect that the night skies will no longer be as easy to witness after society has once again opened up.

Walkers look up into the night sky above Twistleton Scar in The Yorkshire Dales National Park. The Yorkshire Dales National Park was officially designated a Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark Sky Association in December 2020. (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

Tom Fyans, the deputy chief executive of CPRE, said: “The night sky is one half of our experience of nature; but we don’t often think of it like that.

“In and of itself, it helps balance our mental health and boost our emotional wellbeing. Recollect that experience of a starry sky and you instinctively know it soothed you.

“But our view of the night sky – and all the benefits it undoubtedly brings – is being blotted out by light pollution.

“Like all forms of pollution, it is damaging our mental and physical health, and also having a severe impact on wildlife.

“Yet, it is a form of pollution that is allowed to increase year on year without any effort being made to control the damage it is causing.”

In 2021, more than 7,000 people took part in the CPRE’s star count, and the proportion of participants reporting "severe light pollution", defined as 10 stars or fewer being visible to the naked eye in the Orion constellation, had declined from 61 per cent to 51 per cent.

The proportion of "truly dark skies", defined as over 30 stars being visible within the Orion constellation, had increased from three per cent to five per cent.

This was attributed to the count taking place during the first national lockdown, with reduced levels of artificial light leading to a clearer view of the night sky.

An annual Dark Skies Festival is currently being staged in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and North York Moors National Park until March 6.

The two National Parks have become increasingly popular in recent years as locations for astronomy, and they were both officially designated as Dark Skies Reserves in December 2020.

However, officers at the National Parks have stressed that work is being stepped up to ensure that light pollution is minimised and the dark skies are protected.

Audits are being undertaken on buildings in the National Parks to assess their lighting, while monitoring equipment is being installed to ensure that the dark skies are not being impacted.

The director of park services at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Kathryn Beardmore, said: "Dark skies are one of the National Park's special qualities and - as an International Dark Sky Reserve - the star count is an important tool in helping us understand where light pollution is having an affect so we can support residents, businesses and local authorities in those areas with good lighting practices.”

A senior figure at the British Astronomical Association has highlighted the importance of dark skies on the nation’s health.

Bob Mizon, of the British Astronomical Association’s Commission for Dark Skies, claimed that the night skies are a “great antidote to the stresses of modern life”.

But he added: “It is literally 50 per cent of our environment – from east to west – and it is the only part of our environment that has no protection in law.

“People are very rapidly coming to the conclusion that what we do to the environment has a direct impact on our wellbeing.

“The same as coral reefs dying off and rivers clogged with plastic bags – one more aspect of our impact on the environment is our pollution of the night sky and yet it is completely unprotected.”

The star count will run from Saturday, February 26, until Sunday, March 6, and more details are available at www.cpre.org.uk/