A SCOTTISH forest has become the first place in the UK to win a prestigious international award for the darkness of its skies.
• Loch Trool in Galloway Forest Park
Stargazers are expected to flock to Galloway Forest Park in their thousands following the decision by judges to make it the UK's first Dark Sky Park.
The huge wilderness area has almost as little artificial light as a photographer's dark room – a factor that helped convince the International Dark Sky Association it deserved the prestigious accolade.
Visitors to the park, which at 300 square miles is the largest of its kind in the UK, will soon be met by noticeboards announcing they are entering the UK's first Dark Sky Park, and organisers hope signs will be put up saying "Welcome stargazers".
A website will highlight the best places in the park for spotting distant galaxies and a visitor centre may be revamped to provide more information for stargazers.
Keith Muir, Forestry Commission Scotland's head of tourism and recreation in Galloway, said he was delighted with the award.
"We have boldly gone where no-one in the UK has gone before," he said.
"I'm so pleased that everyone's support and hard work has paid off. The award is a massive feather in Galloway's cap."
He added that he hoped it would help double the 850,000 visitors to the park each year.
"Tourism is the single largest economic development opportunity for south-west Scotland," he said.
To achieve the award, Forestry Commission Scotland has worked with the local Wigtownshire Astronomical Society, lighting experts and the surrounding community to ensure Galloway's skies remain pitch black – the best condition for viewing distant stars.
A sky-quality meter was used to test the darkness. It was rated at 23 out of 25 – making it almost as dark as a photographer's dark room.
In major cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh, a likely reading would be around 15 or 16.
Welcoming the announcement, Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "Understandably, all those involved in this innovative project are over the moon and I'm thrilled for them and for Scotland. The interest in this initiative has been worldwide.
"The award is great news for putting Galloway Forest Park firmly in the spotlight and for attracting more tourists to the area."
The award, granted at the end of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, recognises areas with minimal lighting and outstanding visibility.
Work on achieving Dark Sky Park status began in September 2008, and a formal application was submitted to the IDA six weeks ago.
The decision to grant the award was made at the association's annual general meeting held in Phoenix, Arizona, this weekend.
Martin Morgan-Taylor, UK board member for the International Dark Sky Association said: "Such skies are rapidly disappearing and less than 10 per cent of people in the UK can now see the Milky Way from where they live."
Until now, there have been only three other Dark Sky Parks in the world, all in the United States.
Hortobgy National Park in Hungary was also hoping to be granted the award this week.