It’s been open for less than a year but astronomers are now warning that the Dark Sky Park in Galloway is under threat. The cause – a glut of applications for wind turbines in the area! In an open letter to the Scottish Government, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group warn about the serious risks to the dark skies that made the park possible. They want a change in planning policy so that the park enjoys the same kind of protection that wild land across Scotland is given.
According to Mark Gibson, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, there are currently nine proposals for turbines at various stages of planning. They include proposals from energy companies such as E.ON and RWE npower renewables, among others. He argued that, while some planning applications had been rejected, there are fears that if even just one is approved, it could open the door for further development.
The Dark Sky Park is the only one in Britain. Opened by the First Minister last October, it’s home to the world’s only publicly accessible, research-grade observatory within a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. In the opinion of Professor John Brown, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, “Installing any large structures that require illumination (whether visible or infra-red) would be akin to putting a factory in Glen Coe or electricity pylons along the Cuillin Ridge.
“Our first minister was instrumental in helping to secure funding for the observatory and he opened it with much passion and aplomb in October last, praising Scotland for leading the world with this fine public and educational facility. But Mr Salmond is also an ardent advocate of wind farms and so faces a dilemma. I, for one, would call upon him now to prove his sincere interest in our wild lands and skies by ensuring wind farms and other dark sky contaminants are excluded from the entire Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. This would lay down a benchmark for future decisions on all similar wild land sites where wind farms are wholly inappropriate.”
In a statement, the Scottish Government explained that consultation on the draft Scottish Planning Policy took place earlier this year. These included proposals to guide local authorities in the preparation of spatial frameworks for wind energy development. “We received a large number of responses to the consultation,” it said, “including many views on onshore wind, and will take these responses into account when we publish the finalised SPP next year.”
The reason for the objectors’ concerns is that, under Ministry of Defence and Aviation Authority safety rules, wind turbines must be illuminated by infra-red light and, in some cases, visible light as well. Turbines near the park could fall into the latter category, and would affect both the ability of astronomers to use sensitive equipment, and the current visibility of stars, galaxies, comets and northern lights.