Stargazing in the South Downs Dark Sky Reserve

The near-permanent glow of light pouring skywards from our towns and cities not only uses up a huge amount of energy and money, it also obscures our ability to observe what’s right above our heads. Light pollution is now spreading out of the city suburbs and into the countryside, with motorways and sports stadia just a couple of the key culprits associated with lighting up the night’s sky in rural areas. This is bad news for nocturnal animals, because they can’t hide, hunt or mate in their natural environment.

However, help is at hand. Thanks to Britain’s protected national parks and recognised Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, some of the nation’s darkest skies are able to remain reassuringly unaffected by artificial light. The South Downs National Park is one of these areas and in 2016 it had the rare honour of becoming an IDA International Dark Sky Reserve – one of only six in the UK.

To celebrate this achievement, expert park rangers, local astronomy groups and eager stargazers gather together in Dark Sky Discovery Sites to watch the skies for two weeks in February. Read more to find out about the South Downs Dark Skies Festival and what you can do to help prevent light pollution.

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?

Dan Oakley is a South Downs National Park ranger and dark skies expert. He says: “To be considered a Dark Sky Reserve you need to have unrestrained light access to see the Milky Way. This is a key feature to becoming a reserve.” There are currently fewer than 20 Dark Sky Reserves around the world; the South Downs is one of only four in England, and six in the UK.

Why is it important to have dark skies?

Not only are clear, dark nights and a lack of light pollution really important for seeing stars, but darkness is also vital for nocturnal wildlife. Darkness provides protection for smaller creatures, as well as cover for those that like to hunt. Mating also often occurs under the cover of darkness and many animals’ senses have adapted for nocturnal activities and therefore just aren’t as efficient during the day or when there’s lots of artificial light. It’s also important to have dark skies so woodlands and heathland areas remain wild and offer animals an environment where they feel safe and can behave as naturally as possible.

How can I see stars in the South Downs?

You can start stargazing either with your own binoculars, telescope or at an organised stargazing event. Organised events, such as star parties and the Dark Skies Festival, are run by park rangers and local astronomy groups. They aim to encourage adults and children into the South Downs at night and at a time of year that they might not normally do so. There are also a couple of campsites in the South Downs that are open all year round, as well as lots of independently owned B&Bs and small guest houses.

“We run star parties indoors and outdoors in Steyning, Lewes, Petersfield and Midhurst. At these sorts of events we have lots of fun things to do for families, including jigsaws, fancy dress and astrophotography workshops, as well as talks run by local astronomy groups,” South Downs park ranger and dark skies expert, Dan Oakley, explains. “We also get out some of our big telescopes and light measuring equipment so people can see for themselves what’s right above their heads. Our star parties usually attract around 500 people to each event. People come from as far as London just to look through our telescopes.”

There are 10 recognised Dark Sky Discovery Sites in South Downs National Park: Science Centre and Planetarium (Winchester); Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill and Buriton (close to Petersfield); Harting Down, Iping Common and Bignor Hill (either side of Midhurst); Devil’s Dyke (near Brighton); Ditchling Beacon (near Lewes); and Birling Gap (near Eastbourne).

What’s the Dark Skies Festival?

For two weeks in February there will be lots of star parties and organised stargazing events taking place across the South Downs. The Dark Skies Festival is led by the South Downs National Park Association and is a way for everyone to engage with the universe and learn about how we can preserve our dark skies.

Kat Beer is responsible for sustainable tourism in the South Downs, she sees the Dark Skies Festival as a great excuse to visit the national park at a traditionally less busy time of year: “By providing the stargazing equipment and the expert knowledge, the Dark Skies Festival encourages everyone to come and take part. Also, a couple of local campsites and lots of local B&Bs are open at this time of year. Visitors will be treated to an incredibly unique experience that’s completely different to what you’d expect if visiting during the busier months of July and August. Stargazing is a brilliant way to get people into South Downs National Park all year round, not just in summer.”

A photography competition also culminates in the week of the festival, as Kat explains: “There are only four international Dark Sky Reserves in the UK, so to be lucky enough to have our very own in the south of England deserves celebrating. One such event that really makes the most of this achievement is the astrophotography competition. The three photographic categories are: South Downs skyscapes; living dark skies: people and nature; and our magnificent moon. Images are shared on social media and judging coincides with the festival in February.”

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What will I see?

If you’re looking up at the night’s sky in February in one of the South Downs Dark Sky Discovery Sites, you should be able to see the Milky Way as this is one of the prerequisites for the national park being accredited as a Dark Sky Reserve.

Dan Oakley explains more about what you can expect to see in February: “Alongside the Milky Way, some of the most amazing sights we’d anticipate seeing include the rings and dust lanes of Saturn, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy that contains around a trillion stars that are 2.5 million light years away. People get a real kick out of seeing the stars, planets and the moon in much more detail. The moon, especially, can be seen in 3D which is fantastic for starting to understand a bit more about our universe.”

There’s plenty to see even without a telescope, as Dan explains: “We also encourage people to look at the Orion Nebula, which is very bright and therefore visible with the naked eye. There’s a tiny little fuzzy star between Orion’s belt that’s actually a cluster of thousands of young stars – kind of like a stellar star nursery. You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know where to look.”

How can I help keep the night’s sky dark?

Dan Oakley believes there are plenty things we can do as individuals to limit our contribution to light pollution: “We also provide lots of practical information and ideas as to how communities and homeowners can use domestic lighting. For instance, which bulbs to use and why it’s important to face outside lights down instead of up.”

He encourages people to help monitor light pollution in their local area: “Also in conjunction with Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), we ask stargazers to do a star count to see if light pollution has improved or got worse in their area. This is done by counting the amount of stars that you can see in-between the star constellation Orion’s shoulders and his feet. It’s a fun way to help promote good lighting policies and also help to protect our dark skies for future generations.”

Tips for reducing light pollution in your home or workspace

Turn off any lights when not in use, especially outdoor lights Angle outdoor lights downwards, not horizontally or upwards Replace high energy outdoor bulbs with low glare, compact fluorescents Domestic use lights should be less than 500 lumens Use motion sensors rather than keeping outdoor lights on all night Keep curtains or blinds closed at night
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: © Chris Nesbit] [Intro: © Dan Oakley/SDNPA] [Why is it important to have dark skies?: © Dan Oakley/SDNPA] [What will I see?: © Dan Oakley/SDNPA]