Q&A with Annie Dachinger and Jo Birch: The World’s First ‘Dark Sky’ Island

The World's First 'Dark Sky' IslandLong renowned as a popular weekend destination for British beach-combers, the Island of Sark — smallest among the Channel Islands that separate U.K. from France — quietly made environmental history two years ago by becoming the world’s first ‘Dark Sky’ island community.

In order to achieve this status, as recognized by the International Dark Sky Association, the community completely eradicated nighttime light pollution by placing a dusk-to-dawn ban on all street lamps, fluorescent bulbs, and other artificial light sources. Sark was already regarded as a stargazing hub — and thanks to the recent regulations, the night sky view from this tiny island is even more disarming. We spoke with two members of the Sark Astronomy Society (SAstroS) — Chief Annie Dachinger and Press Secretary Jo Birch — about the overall impact these big changes have brought to the small island community.

Outdoor Nation: When did the efforts to do away with nighttime light pollution on the Island of Sark first take shape?

Jo Birch: At the end of March 2010, a letter was sent to all Sark residents explaining that we wished to apply for the award of Dark Sky Island. This meant that there would be an audit of all external lighting on the island and permission was sought for external access to properties to carry out this independent audit.

ONWhat measures did local officials take to achieve Sark’s ‘dark sky’ distinction?
JB: The application to the IDA was supported by Tourism and Agriculture Committees of Chief Pleas (government) and the sum of £2000 was granted by the Chief Pleas towards the lighting management plan and the associated costs. £2725.00 was raised by the community and lots of people gave help in other ways; accommodation provided free, bicycles and trailer hire donated etc.

126ON How did Sark’s residents receive this proposal
JB: Favourably in the vast majority of cases. Only two people did not want their lights ‘measured’, the Chamber of Commerce supported the application as did Sark Electricity Company and the Société Sercquaise both gave funds and help. The local radio station in Guernsey gave us airtime and so did Channel TV. We founded a star-gazing group called SastroS (Sark Astronomy Society).

ON What is SAstroS’ primary role today?
 None of us in SAstroS is an ‘astronomer’, although we are gradually learning and deeply appreciative of our unique status, [and] we see our role as primarily to provide information and access for the purpose of bringing astro-tourism to Sark.

ON Other than the utter lack of nighttime light pollution, what are some other eco-friendly aspects of Sark?
 We have no cars, and no tarmac roads, so most people get around by walking or bicycling. There is a low level of population for the area, mostly small fields and plenty of natural cliff and headland habitat. Very few pesticides or herbicides are used – and none by the island workmen who manage the hedges and cliff paths. There is no airport here and aircraft cannot overfly the island below 900 metres. Tractors must be off the roads between 10 pm and 6 am and none allowed on a Sunday (except for emergencies and stock feeding). It’s very peaceful.

ON When is the best time of year to stargaze on Sark?
 Probably September and October as the island has frequent boats from Guernsey and France, there is plenty of accommodation available and the air is still warm for star-gazing. The nights are getting longer and the winter constellations appearing.

AD: It is not necessary to bring viewing equipment for stargazing, the night sky being so clear that even faint objects are visible to the naked eye.

ONIf Sark is completely dark at night and motor vehicles are prohibited on the island, then how do locals get from place to place?
JB: Starlight, moonlight and torches are used. Obligatory when on a bicycle, but useful when walking.

ON Has the ‘dark sky’ distinction boosted local tourism in the last two years?
JB: We think the ‘Dark Sky’ distinction has resulted in more tourists to Sark, not least because SastroS has run 3 Star festivals in the ‘shoulder months’ of October and March and we have a fourth one organized for April. We think this has bought visitors to the island.

AD: Since its award of ‘Dark Sky’ recognition, Sark has received a great deal of interest from around the world and this interest is increasing as the word gets out.


ONHow has this recognition impacted the local economy?
JB: It’s difficult to quantify the impact on the local economy; we just think that if more visitors come here, it’s better for Sark. They buy boat tickets, use accommodation and eat on the island. We received very good press coverage in the national newspapers, The One Show on BBC TV, online BBC news and local media.

ONWhat can other communities do to receive ‘dark sky’ status?
JB: Any community can apply for Dark Sky Community status; the point really is to reduce pollution of the night sky – that doesn’t mean total darkness everywhere but no wasted light. It shouldn’t shine outwards and upwards where it is not required and does no good, only harm. Wildlife needs darkness too. And children will not miss out on the wonderful experience of seeing the night sky with all its stars and planets.

ONDoes SAstroS have plans to build on the ‘Dark Sky’ status in the coming years?
AD: Sark Astronomy Society is working to raise enough money to build a permanent observatory on the island for the use of residents and visitors, particularly those professionally interested in the study of deep sky objects.

Thanks to Annie Dachinger and Jo Birch for speaking with us about Sark’s amazing achievement. For more information about visiting this innovative little island, please visit the official Sark tourism website.