Mark Holroyd, of Forestry England writes:

The recent crisp frosty nights have presented the perfect opportunity to look up and experience the dark skies of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park – already some of the darkest skies in England. Forestry England is pleased to be working with partners across Cumbria to celebrate and protect our dark skies for the benefit of people, nature and the economy.

People

An estimated 85% of the UK population has never seen the Milky Way. When gazing upon a star-filled sky, thoughts clear and our connection to nature strengthens. Stargazing is a free, constantly changing show that allows for great conversation. It fosters inspiration and imagination, alleviates stress and increases happiness.

While stargazing is open to everyone and requires no formal training, as a nation which seeks to engage more young people with careers in science and mathematics, astronomy sessions are an ideal way to ignite our curiosity about the universe.

The inaugural Cumbria Dark Skies Festival in February 2020 is a new way for everyone to have a go at astronomy or simply enjoy the outdoors at its darkest, whether you are a local resident or a visitor. Over 16 events are taking place right across Cumbria (many suitable for all weathers).

Nature

Dark skies are really important for lots of animals that go out and about at night. Light pollution from unnecessarily bright lights can blind and confuse them so that they can’t feed or find a mate. Unsurprisingly, through their size and composition, the nation’s forests play an important role in protecting dark night skies and providing habitats for nocturnal species such as owls, bats, hedgehogs, moths and small mammals.

Over 100 volunteers from Friends of the Lake District and the Lake District National Park are using portable light meters to monitor the darkness of our skies, producing an important dataset to understand and protect the darkest areas of Cumbria in the future.

Economy

Dark skies were judged by Lonely Planet to be a key travel trend for 2019, with no sign of stopping! ‘Astrotourism’ is an opportunity to extend the tourism season into the shoulder months and develop new evening activities – enhancing productivity of the visitor economy. Research by VisitEngland showed that 23% of the UK domestic audience is interested or very interested in a stargazing experience (that’s a similar percentage to mountain biking).

At Forestry England we’ve seen stargazing sessions sell-out at Grizedale Forest, and the Kielder Observatory we host in Northumberland has grown since 2008 to welcome nearly 20,000 visitors per year and support around 13 full time jobs (including five astrophysicists!). There are many ways for tourism business to get involved – it can be as simple as making a couple of pairs of binoculars and a set of deckchairs available, so guests can view the stars from your garden or driveway! In 2020, Cumbria Tourism will be releasing new resources to help businesses make the most of the astrotourism trend.

Celebrating together

The enhanced protection of our dark skies needs to start with enjoyment, appreciation and celebration of what we have – as David Attenborough once said: “nobody will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced”. For me, this is a really exciting opportunity for communities and the conservation and tourism sectors to work closely and positively together to celebrate one of Cumbria’s most special natural assets.

Mark Holroyd is Head of Recreation and Communications for Forestry England in the North of England. Looking after the nations forests, Forestry England manages Grizedale, Whinlatter and Wild Ennerdale, amongst other woodlands and forests in Cumbria for the benefit of people, nature and the economy. They are hosting a number of events in the Cumbria Dark Skies Festival (21-23 February 2020).

 

@forestryengland @tourismmark

Image: Milky Way over Tarn Hows by Pete Collins