SARK’s night sky is dark – it’s official. The Dark Sky Community award was granted by the IDA (International Dark Sky Association) in January 2011 to Sark in the Channel Islands. This small island, 5 x 3 km, lying about 20 miles from the Normandy coast, is now the first Dark Sky Island.
We take our lovely starlit skies for granted and have always located Orion and Polaris without difficulty. Our new status means no street lights, no tractor traffic (cars are prohibited anyway) after 10 pm and lots of hand torches. And, with a unit of electricity costing 50p, very few and very dim outside lights – usually on a timer. The idea is to not waste light, but to shine it where needed and not upwards or outwards.
Our desire to win Dark Sky status had to be voluntary. To convince the IDA that we recognized and valued our darkness and wanted to preserve it, that we cared about energy conservation and the natural world, meant engaging with the whole community. It was not simple.
The main problem was convincing residents that it was worth trying for the award, that by adopting good lighting practices and demonstrating our commitment to dark skies, we could attract more visitors out of season.
The campaign was initiated by Felicity Belfield, a 90-year old amateur astronomer who noticed the Guardian listing the darkest places to enjoy the night skies. She promptly wrote to me as a fellow star-gazer. “Sark isn’t even mentioned,” she said, “and we should be top of the list!” As a member of Sark’s conservation/heritage group, I was able to take the project forward.
After consulting with Steve Owens, UK Co-ordinator for Astronomy2009 and our ‘pilot’ throughout the project, a letter explaining the project and its hoped-for benefits was sent to all households. The most common reaction was, “We hardly ever turn our outside light on.” Sark Electricity Company (probably the last privately owned power station in Europe) was fortunately on board and so was our government (Chief Pleas). All external lighting was inspected as overall we needed to be 75 per cent compliant to have a chance for the award. We had two problems; one was Flamanville (nuclear processing plant on the French coast) and the other the Mermaid disco lights, Tuesday nights. Neither was resolved but we have a plan for the Mermaid.
Lighting engineer James Paterson drew up a Lighting Management Plan. Both Steve and James spent a week over here; they talked to practically everybody, gave presentations, enthused and encouraged us to be dark-sky friendly. Steve ran an astronomy session in Felicity’s garden and, since it was during the Icelandic volcanic ash period, the skies were particularly clear.
Information and support
Information on replacing non-compliant lighting was freely available island-wide, some necessary changes were made and fund raising instigated; we needed about £4,000. Chief Pleas was kept informed of progress throughout and the two astronomy presentations each attracted 50 people of our 600 population. Sark Astronomy Society (SAstroS) was formed with 25 members plus two telescopes.
The quality of Sark’s night sky was independently verified by three IDA inspectors and our application, together with letters of support from various island businesses, was submitted via the 10th IDA International Symposium in Hungary in September 2010.
We are planning a weekend ‘Star Festival’ on 21 October and a UK university which? plans to have an all-sky telescope set up outside the Sark School.
The IDA will audit us again in 2021 so it’s important that we maintain our current lack of light pollution and skyglow which enable us to see the stars and appreciate the night sky.