A PROJECT to rid the South Downs of light pollution could see the park become an international ‘dark sky reserve’. The South Downs National Park Authority is now encouraging the public to support its application bid which, if approved, could benefit wildlife and stargazers alike

IT IS famed for acres of rolling green hills, luscious countryside and complex ecosystems and wildlife.

But despite its beauty, the South Downs National Park (SDNP) has a particular problem. It sits in one of the most light-polluted regions of the UK.

The SDNP says only a small proportion of its land is classed as ‘truly dark’, meaning the chance of seeing twinkling stars and zooming meteorites is a lot smaller than it could be.

And aside from affecting stargazers, light pollution also threatens ecologically sensitive habitats. Various species count on darkness for survival, with nearly a third of vertebrates and 60% of invertebrates being nocturnal. High levels of light pollution can cause them to become disorientated, affecting their reproduction habits and food foraging behaviour.

In a bid to protect wildlife, the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) will apply for International Dark Skies Reserve (IDSR) status from the International Dark Sky Association. If successful, it will join an elite group of eight other locations that boast the IDSR title, including Brecon Beacons in Wales, NamibRand nature reserve in Namibia and Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand.

If and when IDSR status is approved, it is hoped residents living among the South Downs will consciously think about how much light they use and emit from their homes.

The International Dark Sky Association says status is usually granted to large areas of public or private land with an "exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment".

The Dark Sky Reserve title is separate from the IDSA’s Dark Sky Places and Parks title, offering a more lucrative but harder to achieve label.

But before the SDNPA can ask locals to turn their lights off, it first has to measure and map the quality of the sky in a bid to show the International Dark Sky Association where its critical areas are.

Dan Oakley, dark skies ranger for the SDNPA, said: “The South Downs National Park sits bang in the middle of the most crowded part of the country but surprisingly we still have precious places where the night skies are still dark enough to reveal an astonishing starscape.

“As part of our bid, the first step is to map where the dark skies are. The next is to work with communities to find where light pollution is coming from and where lighting can be improved to make our dark skies even better.

“We’re calling on people to show their support for tackling the problem by taking a Dark Skies Pledge online – a brief form that confirms your support for IDSR status.”

Bob Rowland, 82, is a resident of Fulking – a village nestled at the foot of the South Downs near Devil’s Dyke and Poynings.

While praising the bid to become a dark sky reserve, the villager said he would have no hesitation in signing the Dark Skies Pledge if it helped win IDSR status.

He said: “What wonderful news. I don’t see why I wouldn’t support it. When you come through Fulking at night there are only three street lights, but other than that it’s quite dark anyway.

“But if we were asked for example to turn one of those lights off for a certain period then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. We have badger sets round here and lots of owls so it would no doubt be of benefit to them.”

Mr Rowland said he would put a link to the SDNPA’s online pledge on the village website and in the Pigeon Post – Fulking’s newsletter.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign is also receiving support from Sussex’s stargazers.

Mark Ford, chairman of the South Downs Astronomical Society, said he would be supporting the application but feared it was “a little too late”.

He said: “Our group formed about 20 years ago and naturally, because of new developments, things were a lot better back then in terms of light pollution.

“It might be a little too late now because there are new buildings and supermarkets at the foot of the Downs. But we obviously support the idea anyway.

“One particular problem is lights from nurseries, where the lighting for the bulbs gets so horrendous at times you can’t see anything.

“Lights from residential gardens are also problematic. We would encourage people to perhaps downgrade the power of their lights and point them down instead of upwards – like the new streetlights that have been introduced over the years.”

Asked where the best spots were for stargazing across the South Downs, Mr Ford said: “Chichester and Worthing are quite bad but better spots include Pagham and Selsey.

“In terms of how it compares nationally, astronomy on the Downs is just about ok. But the problem is there are so many towns and cities along the coast. Naturally there is a lot of light pollution.”

Once the dark skies have been mapped, officials will carry out an external lighting audit to determine sources of light pollution. The park authority will then work with parishes, communities and astronomy groups to see how it can manage lighting and improve the chances of dark skies.

A spokesman from the South Downs National Park Authority said: “Regardless of whether the South Downs National Park gains IDSR accreditation, it will still be hugely important to protect the dark skies and the tranquillity of the national park.

“Light pollution is a big issue. It not only wastes energy, costs money and impacts on wildlife, it can even affect our health – for example by disrupting sleep. It also stops people from enjoying the night skies. The South Downs National Park Authority is calling for people to show their support for tackling this problem by taking a Dark Skies Pledge.”

Sign the South Downs National Park Dark Skies Pledge by visiting southdowns.gov.uk/darkskiespledge