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Tick Season and How to Survive It

Tick season engorged tick

Summer survey season is upon us and along with it comes the potential for encountering ticks. These tiny, parasitic arachnids are becoming more numerous in the UK, along with the various pathogens that they carry. So, what exactly are they and how can you survive tick season?

What Are Ticks?

Ticks are small members of the arachnid family that live solely on the blood of birds and mammals. They have four stages in their life cycles: egg, larva, nymph and adult.

In the UK, ticks at the larval and nymph stage will tend to parasitise small birds and mammals and this is where they will often pick up the bacteria that can cause problems for us and our pets. As adults they may move on to larger mammals, notably deer.

Where Are They Found?

Anywhere with reasonable humidity levels plus plenty of vegetation and potential hosts could have ticks. Deciduous woods, stands of bracken and even town parks can have ticks. Vegetation is important because they complete each moult to a new life stage in the safety of the leaf litter. They also use low plants to find new hosts. By reaching out from a plant with their front legs they can grasp passing animals, behaviour known as questing. Contrary to popular opinion, they can’t jump.

Tick season bracken
Stands of bracken are perfect havens for ticks

It is also likely that where there are deer, you will find ticks. In fact, one of the causes of increased tick numbers is the fact that we now have large numbers of deer across much of the UK. In Scotland, red deer numbers are extremely high. But roe deer numbers are also on the rise across the UK, and this species is moving into urban areas increasingly as well.

This means that the potential for being bitten by a tick is growing, not only for the general public and their pets, but also those of us out on survey sites. Many Scottish sites in particular are in areas with deer, and therefore ticks. Tick activity is highest when it is warmer, usually between March and October, precisely when we are more likely to be outside surveying as well.

Lyme Disease

So why is being bitten a problem? As mentioned earlier, ticks pick up various bacteria from their hosts and then pass these on each time they bite a new one. The bacteria are dormant in the tick until it starts to feed. Once it does, the warm blood causes the bacteria to wake up and they pass into the host. Craftily, because the tick also injects an anaesthetic and immunosuppressant, the host’s immune defences don’t react straight away. This means it won’t be scratched off and bacteria has longer to cross over.

Roe deer
Roe deer are increasingly entering urban areas

Not every tick is carrying something nasty, but the prevalence of infected ticks is on the rise in the UK. Lyme disease is the commonest infection, but tick-borne encephalitis, which can cause serious neurological illness, has been recorded twice in the UK. There are worries cases could rise here. The first reported case of Lyme disease in the UK was in the mid-1980s, although it was already common on the continent. Warmer temperatures, expansion of woodland areas and the aforementioned rise in deer numbers are probably all factors in the increase of cases.

Red deer and bracken
Red deer and bracken together mean the potential for lots of ticks

If you have been bitten, there are a few Lyme disease symptoms to look out for. These don’t usually become apparent until at least two weeks after the bite, sometimes much longer, and may start with a non-itchy red rash. This often has a clear centre section and looks like a bull’s eye. Flu-like symptoms are also possible including fatigue, swollen glands, fever, headaches and muscle aches. Most people respond fairly well to antibiotics, but Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose. Blood tests aren’t always conclusive. A few people suffer from symptoms for years afterwards, even with treatment. This means that ultimately, prevention is by far the best tactic to deal with ticks.

How to Avoid Ticks

During survey season it is usually not possible to completely avoid areas that may have high tick numbers, but there are some measures you can take to protect yourself:

  • Spray your clothes with a DEET-based insect repellent before heading out
  • Wear long trousers, not shorts, and consider wearing gaiters even when it’s hot
  • Check your clothes and gear thoroughly before going inside again
  • Check your body carefully in the shower and be aware that ticks like to crawl to dark, hidden places like behind the knees and around the groin
  • Be aware also that ticks are tiny until engorged with blood, so any small mark should be looked at
  • If you do find a tick, carefully take it out with a tick remover and clean the area with antiseptic.
Tick removal card
Carry a tick remover card with you on surveys

Unfortunately, ticks are an increasing consideration when it comes to survey season. But by being aware and taking the right preventative steps, the risk of being bitten by an infected tick can be reduced. For more detailed information, see the Lyme Disease Action website.