Did you know that on a clear night above the Brecon Beacons stargazers are able to see the Milky Way, as well as numerous major constellations, bright nebulas and even meteor showers? In fact, the Brecon Beacons has some of the highest quality dark skies in the whole of the UK – making it the perfect destination to visit to get a better view of the night sky.

We think that this is something worth shouting so the National Park Authority teamed up with the Brecon Beacons Park Society to apply to the International Dark-Sky Association to become Wales’ first International Dark Sky Reserve – which we were awarded in 2013!

This highly prestigious status – given to only a handful of international destinations – creates new opportunities for tourism and the local economy, helps residents and visitors enjoy them  and preserves our magical night skies for future generations.  It also helps protect a whole host of nocturnal creatures that need dark nights to forage, hunt and migrate. 

Dark Sky Reserve status is a prestigious award given to only a handful of destinations that can prove they have an outstanding quality of night sky. They must also pledge to reduce light pollution to enhance the quality of this amazing asset. 

The award is given by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a United States based non-profit organization founded in 1988. Its mission is “to preserve and protect the night-time environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting." 

Residents living within the Brecon Beacons National Park are encouraged to get involved in the initiative and see how reducing their light pollution could save them money on their energy bills and enhance their own views of the night sky. 

Although large areas of the National Park remain free from light pollution, the gradual encroachment of street, house and security lights means that starlight, which may have travelled for hundreds or even millions of years to reach our eyes, is stolen from us at the last moment by this sky glow. 

You may not have given consideration to this before but there are many simple things that you can do in your own home to protect our dark nights – and probably reduce your energy bills too. For example, you could use low wattage bulbs, fit exterior lights with motion detectors, shield exterior lights or tilt them towards the ground and switch off lights when you don’t need them.  

If you’re intrigued, you can join a stargazing event. Some hotels and B&Bs also have telescopes which guests can use. But you’ll be amazed at what you can see, even without a telescope! 

Choose a clear night and find a spot that’s free from night glow – it could simply be a garden. Take binoculars – they will help you get a better view of the stars.

Looking north on a clear night between January and March, you should be able to see the Plough. It isn’t a constellation, but part of a constellation called Ursa Major, Latin for Great Bear. Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, can be found by following the line of the two ‘pointer’ stars in the Plough. Polaris is positioned above the North Pole, and remains in the same place in the sky throughout the night, while the other stars rotate around it. It has been used for navigation for centuries. Also look out for the Perseid Meteor Shower, peaking in mid August. 

It’s not just the stars that come out at night, there are plenty of nocturnal animals too. If you pick the right spot you might be lucky enough to see some of our rarest creatures of the night including barn owls, lesser horseshoe bats and other bat species, foxes, badgers, dormice, hedgehogs, moths and insects. These creatures all rely on dark nights to hunt their prey.

New research has revealed that light pollution not only limits the visibility of stars, but also disturbs the navigational patterns of nocturnal animals. This has contributed to the decline of many of our native nocturnal species.

Dave Ward (Flickr).

Some suggestions of where to go stargazing (click on OS location to see Google map): 

Usk Reservoir

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The car park area at Usk reservoir is a beautiful place to have a family picnic as well as an ideal place to enjoy outstanding dark skies. The large flat area allows set up of telescopes and the road access from Trecastle means it is easily accessible. This area enjoys a naked eye limiting magnitude of 6.4 and is protected from the light pollution of the South Wales valleys. 

Crai Reservoir

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This reservoir is not as accessible as Usk, but a short drive down an access lane allows the set up of telescopes to enjoy stargazing down to a limiting magnitude of 6.37. There are also laybys along the A4607 which provide ideal places to enjoy the beauty of the dark skies. 

Llanthony Priory

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One of the most beautiful ruined buildings in the care of CADW, Llanthony Priory has pristine skies and is situated along the Offa’s Dyke Path just on the Welsh-English border, with skies that have a limiting magnitude of 6.35. The priory is set in one of the most charming areas to observe in Wales. 

Hay Bluff

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The road over Gospel Pass from Llanthony to Hay-on-Wye brings you to the car park on Hay Bluff, a hill overlooking the Wye valley with great views over Powys and Shropshire to the distant north-west. The skies have a limiting magnitude of 6.34. The town of Hay is the largest centre of second hand bookshops outside of London, making this a good place to look for astronomy titles. 

National Park Visitor Centre (Mountain Centre)

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The visitor centre is signposted at the village of Libanus on the main A470 road and is very accessible both day and night. Enjoying skies with a limiting magnitude of 6.37, the centre is one of the best and most accessible areas to set up telescopes and is within an hour’s drive of every one of the South Wales valleys.

The Brecon Beacons National Park’s website offers some more advice about their Dark Sky Reserve, and local astronomical societies, here – www.breconbeacons.org/stargazing.