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Scots forest bids for first dark sky park outside USA

Stargazers could heading to a forest in the south-west of Scotland after it launched an attempt to become the first “dark sky park” outside the US.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) has six weeks to decide whether the skies over the Galloway Forest Park allow a clear enough view of the stars to qualify for the title.

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Keith Muir, Forest Commission Scotland’s head of tourism and the environment for Galloway, said a successful bid would be a big step forward for stargazing in Scotland.

“If we get dark sky status I’m sure it will be a great boost for the area and a real draw for stargazers wanting to experience some of the clearest skies in Britain,” he said.

“We had light readings taken last winter with great results so we are hoping to match or improve on this.”

Two UK board members of the IDSA will visit the forest to decide if the skies are dark enough, following huge efforts by park officials to prevent lights in farm buildings spilling upwards and spoiling the view.

Mr Muir said help from the Wigtownshire Astronomical Society and Glasgow University students, had also been integral in “spurring on” the bid.

“It isn’t all plain sailing from here,” he admitted.

“The criteria to make dark sky status is really tough so it will be a nervous time for all involved until the decision is made.”

Star enthusiasts, who have already visited the park, said that cloudless nights allowed an unrivalled view of the heavens, providing a rare chance to see shooting stars, a distant Andromeda galaxy and stellar nurseries where suns are created.

The three existing dark sky parks are all in the US -- in Utah, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

They were all singled out for lack of “light pollution”, a phenomenon that has been on the increase over the past few centuries as the night time illumination of roads and buildings has sent light into the sky, obscuring all but the brightest stars.

According to some estimates, the amount of light that leaks into space costs around £110 million a year.

The darkness of the night sky is judged on what is called the Bortle scale, where night-time illumination over London ranks as a 10, while that over an oil rig in the Pacific ranks as one.

Galloway scores around three on the scale, making its skies the darkest in Europe.

If the Scottish application is successful, then Mr Muir said there is scope to potentially widen out the park’s site to include the surrounding areas, something the Dumfries and Galloway Council have already discussed.

The IDSA meets in November and a decision on whether the park will be awarded the status should be made shortly after.

If the park’s accreditation is successful, others including Exmoor National Park, the Brecon Beacons and the Peak District are expected to follow suit.

If that were to happen it would mark a remarkable British contribution to Unesco’s 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

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