Tourist park hopes to be named one of planet's true black spots

A SCOTTISH forest is one of two national parks competing to be named Europe's darkest spot.

Officials from the Forestry Commission Scotland are hoping Galloway Forest Park will beat Hortobgy National Park in Hungary to be crowned Europe's first official "dark sky" zone when delegates at the US-based International Dark Sky Association meet in November.

The IDA dark sky award recognises areas with minimal lighting and outstanding night-time visibility, and aims to raise awareness about light pollution and poor lighting conditions.

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In its 21-year history the association has only granted dark sky status to three parks – all in the Unites States.

The team behind Galloway's bid hopes to transform the forest into a stargazing mecca.

Park officials now have an anxious wait before judges from the IDA visit the 75,000-hectare park to test light levels.

Keith Muir of Forestry Commission Scotland is confident Galloway will be successful. "We had light readings taken last winter with great results," he said. "Dark sky status would boost tourism by 2-3 per cent over the winter months and provide a real mecca for stargazers wanting to experience some of the clearest skies in Britain."

The park authority has worked with Wigtownshire Astronomical Society, lighting experts and students from Glasgow University to compile the IDA application, but with lights from as far away as Belfast affecting readings, drawing up a viable application has not been easy.

"It isn't plain sailing. The criteria to make dark sky status is really tough," said Mr Muir.

IDA officials will check Galloway park's suitability for the award by using their own sky quality meter system that takes light readings from 0 to 24. On the SQM scale, a typical Edinburgh night sky would score an eight, while 24 is equivalent to a photographer's dark room.

Galloway forest needs to have a reading between 22 and 23.6 in order to win a dark sky award.

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Judges from the IDA will meet in Arizona on 14-15 November.