It’s one of few places in the world where a immaculate dark sky is stuffed with stars while the night air is filled with spooky rasping screams.

Just two miles long by half a mile wide, the island of Ynys Enlli two miles off the west coast of North Wales has been named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary—only the 17th in the world and the first in Europe—by the International Dark-Sky Association.

It comes against a backdrop of surging light pollution in the northern hemisphere and coincides with Wales Dark Sky Week 2023.

Ynys Enlli: the darkest place in Europe?

Also called Bardsey Island and known as a “Island of 20,000 Saints” because of the Celtic and Christian monasteries established there in the sixth century, Ynys Enlli’s modern-day saints are a nesting colony of over 20,000 nocturnal Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) for whom light pollution is deadly.

Artificial brightening of the night sky—“skyglow”—can cause birds to land. Manx shearwaters need a cliff or slope to take-off, so if they land in the “wrong” place they can often get stuck—and die from dehydration, starvation or from predation. Light pollution is a particular problem for fledglings and it’s often worse during the monthly New Moon when the skies are at their darkest.

There are only 340,000–410,000 pairs of “Manxies” in the world, mostly in Britain and Ireland.

Light pollution was recently blamed for the loss of dramatic starling murmurations above Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Light pollution’s devastating impact

While the campaign to save the darkness from is often associated with stargazers wanting to see more stars, Ynys Enlli’s designation has much to do with limiting the devastating impact of light pollution on wildlife. Already a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, its mountain blocks any light pollution from the mainland and its only other source is from Dublin 70 miles across the Irish Sea.

After four years of monitoring the quality of its night sky the tiny island joins an exalted shortlist of the very planet’s darkest places—all of them geographically isolated and judged to be fragile—that need long-term protection.

“Having a Sanctuary designation for the island is about protecting something truly important, for today and for future generations,” said Mari Huws, the Warden at Enlli in an email. “Protecting the night sky for wildlife is of great importance as well as protecting something that is becoming a rare sight across Europe for visitors to experience.”

How to make a lighthouse dark skies-friendly

Enlli has had a lighthouse in its south for over 200 years to keep vessels away from its sharp rocks as well as from the Llŷn Peninsula. It’s the tallest square tower lighthouse in the UK distinctive not only for its red-and-white livery, but for its red LED lantern.

Until recently it was a lethal source of light pollution for the island’s birdlife. “Prior to the red light it was white, which was catastrophic for birds and caused thousands of fatalities every year,” said Dani Robertson, an award-winning Dark Sky Officer for the Prosiect Nos partnership between Snowdonia National Park, the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley, Anglesey and Pen Llŷn Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. “The light was changed in 2014 from white to red, and overnight the fatalities stopped completely—it’s an amazing dark skies success story.”

Visiting Ynys Enlli

Regular 20-minute boat trips run to the island, weather permitting, from April through October from Porth Meudwy on the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula near Aberdaron. Accommodation is in short supply so needs to be booked in advance from the Bardsey Island Trust or the Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory. “Enlli is a place to unplug, unwind and reconnect with the natural world,” said Huws.

There’s a cafe on the island and the Observatory hold day and nighttime wildlife walks and talks. It’s hoped that the new designation will attract further investment, donations and funding.

“Achieving this prestigious status for Ynys Enlli will raise the profile of the island as a unique place in Wales and amongst the best in the world to appreciate the night sky [and] we hope it will also go a long way in securing the long-term sustainability of the island,” said Sian Stacey, Chair of the Bardsey Island Trust. “It’s the culmination of several years hard work involving our own team as well as our partners across the region and beyond.”

Wales: ‘dark sky country’

As well as now having its first International Dark Sky Sanctuary, Wales has one of the most protected night skies in the world. “We are currently at 17.61%, not including Enlli,” said Robertson. “We hope within three years we will be sitting at nearer 23-24%”.

Where to go stargazing in Wales

Snowdonia National Park in North Wales and the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales are both International Dark Sky Reserves while Elan Valley Estate in mid-Wales is an International Dark Sky Park. Ynys Môn, Llŷn, Gower, Pembroke Coast and Presteigne in Wales could also soon get protected status.

“Wales is fast becoming one of the leading nations in protecting dark skies as a precious resource that benefits people and wildlife,” said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, whose Find a Dark Sky Place is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking darkness.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.


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