Watch the skies: how things are looking up for the county’s dark skies

London’s Piccadilly Circus – with its famous neon signs – is an impressive draw for tourists lured by the bright lights that help to make the capital famous.

But venture 250 miles away and the exact opposite applies – with increasing numbers of visitors attracted to the serene tranquillity of North Yorkshire’s dark skies.

Dark skies have become an increasingly treasured phenomenon globally as sprawling urban communities have spread light pollution, which obscures much of the detail that should be visible at night.

A fortunate by-product of North Yorkshire’s rural complexion is that vast tracts of land are unaffected by electric lighting, giving the county a head start for both expert and amateur stargazers.

Both the county’s National Parks have now joined the exclusive band of International Dark Sky Reserves after making parallel applications.

In 2020, they were granted the status by the International Dark Sky Association, in recognition of the quality of the darkness in both areas, putting them alongside internationally famous locations like the Grand Canyon in the USA.

But accreditation is only a starting point, and all reserves have to justify the continued status, by reporting annually on their work to control light pollution.

The North York Moors National Park Authority project manager for dark skies, Mike Hawtin, said: “We need that ‘plastics’ moment, where people recognise how damaging light pollution is, just as happened with plastic waste. It feels like it is coming. After all, light pollution can be solved at the flick of a switch.”

There is an immediate benefit to the county from having dark skies status, with increased visitor numbers, often at times when traditional visitor levels are low, so the economic benefits come without adding strain to the infrastructure.

But there are advantages on many levels to living with dark skies, from human well-being through factors like improved sleep patterns, to wildlife which is more likely to thrive in the dark environment evolution has conditioned insects and mammals to expect.

The North York Moors National Park Authority works closely with other bodies, such as the Ministry of Defence, on working towards lower light output at the Fylingdales site.

We made our own contribution by introducing dark skies complaint street lighting for future installations. Not only have we changed our specifications for new lighting, but we are looking to replace the existing lighting in and around the National Park over the next few years so that will be compliant, too.

Many others, including parish councils, were also supportive of the work and it was hoped the formation of the new North Yorkshire Council, replacing county, district and borough councils from April, would simplify the processes of public authorities working together to reduce light pollution.

“It was really good to get support from North Yorkshire, because it meant street lighting was one less thing to worry about,” Mr Hawtin said.

Part of the solution to light pollution was education, he said, with a National Park lighting management plan now available to help guide future developments.

“Why shouldn’t everyone use light responsibly?” he said.

Simple steps included using the correct type of lighting, angled correctly to prevent light being projected into the sky.

Soaring energy costs have helped to convince some of the argument against excessive lighting, but Mr Hawtin said the objective was not to stop lighting, rather to ensure it was installed with care.

“The worst offenders are floodlights, angled at 45 degrees or more. Half the light from those is going up into the sky,” he said.

“Even bulkhead lights still throw light indiscriminately. If you can see the bulb sticking out, it is not doing a great job of directing light.

“It is not about taking lighting away, it is about lighting what you need, when you need it and at a level suitable to the need.”

The joint effort has helped project the area as a dark skies attraction, with the park authority setting up its own Star Hub at Sutton Bank to help both expert and amateur stargazers get the most from their visits.

Both National Parks now each have around 30 businesses, from visitor accommodation to hospitality outlets, signed up as ‘dark skies friendly’.

One of the premier locations in the Yorkshire Dales for dark sky viewing is at the Ribblehead viaduct – with the night sky providing a vision as stunning by dark as the railway bridge is by day.

The project manager for dark skies at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Hannah Kay, said a team of volunteers, equipped with light meters, monitors darkness levels at 64 locations across the park.

“Dark skies really seems to capture people’s interest, when they realise they are wasting energy,” she said.

“It has become more of a thing that people are talking about, and something that people get very passionate about.

“We work very hard at raising awareness. I think light pollution will become socially unacceptable, the more people find out about it.

“If you have no cloud, you can see the Milky Way and shooting stars. You can be very scientific or just go as an amateur to have a look. It really will blow your mind.

“It is very inclusive, it is the sky, it is for everyone."