Plague of toxic caterpillars hits the UK: Deadly Oak moths that are covered in 63,000 hairs and can trigger fatal asthma attacks are invading

  • Hairs of oak processionary moths (OPM) contain toxins called thamentopoein
  • Can cause skin rashes, asthma attacks, eye and throat irritations and vomiting  
  • The moths are only toxic in their caterpillar stage and form silk-like nests 
  • People are urged to stay away from the animals and report and sightings  

A plague of toxic caterpillars is invading the UK and wildlife experts are warning people to avoid the potentially fatal insects. 

Oak processionary moths (OPM) are covered in thousands of hairs to protect them which contain dangerous toxins capable of triggering severe reactions, asthma attacks and vomiting.  

Each caterpillar has 63,000 hairs and health experts have warned that you don’t even need to be in direct contact with them to be affected as the hairs can be carried in the wind or fired off as the caterpillars defend themselves. 

The invasion began in earnest in the past fortnight after reports of the caterpillars in a host of hotspots around the south east of England.

Scroll down for video  

A plague of toxic caterpillars that cause life-threatening asthma attacks, vomiting and skin rashes has descended on the UK, officials warn. They have been spotted in the south east

Image shows a person’s skin reaction after being exposed to the caterpillars’ highly toxic hairs. Each caterpillar has 63,000 hairs and health experts have warned that you don’t even need to be in direct contact with them to be affected

The moths – which are highly toxic in their caterpillar stage – first invaded the UK from mainland Europe in 2005 after oak trees were imported from Holland, and pose a hazard to humans, pets and livestock.

Hairs on the caterpillars – which live in and feed off oak trees – contain toxins called thamentopoein which can cause severe skin rashes and asthma attacks as well as causing eye and throat irritations, vomiting, dizziness and fever. 

The oak processionary moth lays its eggs on oak trees and its larvae leave their nests to feed on oak leaves – and once they have stripped a tree bare they move on to the next tree – following one another in a procession, hence their name.

The nests – which are white and the size of a tennis ball – contain hundreds of caterpillars, which are about two-inches long.

Councils, along with the Forestry Commission, are now working to get rid of the pests – with workers spraying the nests to destroy them.

Among the hotspots where the caterpillars have already been found include Bexley in south London, Hampstead Heath in north London and Richmond-upon-Thames in south west London.

Councils in London and the Home Counties have been put on ‘red alert’ to be on the lookout for the caterpillars.

The City of London is already targeting oak trees on Hampstead Heath after the number of nests rocketed in the past year. 

Colin Buttery, the City of London Corporation’s Director of Open Spaces, which manages Hampstead Heath and has put up posters warning locals about the pests, said more than £50,000 was spend on getting rid of the nests last year, but that it could soon rise to £300,000.

He said:'[Teams were] targeting OPM in areas where the public would be most at risk of being exposed to the caterpillars or nests’.

This 2016 image shows how the annual invasion of the caterpillars spreads throughout the south west of the country every year. 2019 reports include Bexley in south London, Hampstead Heath in north London and Richmond-upon-Thames in south west London

Image shows skin irritation after exposure to the pests’ hairs. Other symptoms include causing eye and throat irritations, vomiting, dizziness and fever

‘This includes removal of nests close to busy locations such as car parks, key paths and buildings, catering facilities, children’s play and sporting facilities.

‘To date reports of health issues affecting the public on City Corporation sites is very low, but we are now reaching a tipping point at some properties, such as Hampstead Heath, where nest numbers have grown exponentially in 2018.’

A spokesman for the Camden Conservatives tweeted last week: ‘Take care as Oak Processionary Moth Caterpillars have been found on Hampstead Heath. They can affect the health of both humans and animals.’ 

Bosses at Bexley Council said that teams were set to working 12 hours shifts to spray affected trees, with a spokesman saying this week: ‘The Forestry Commission (and) Bartletts Tree Experts are carrying out a two-phased spraying of trees in the borough that are infested by the caterpillars at locations identified by the Forestry Commission.

‘The first treatment will start at the end of April and is expected to take 2-4 weeks, while the second phase will start two weeks after the completion of the first.

‘The spraying teams will work Monday to Saturday in single 12-hour shifts.’ 

He added: ‘The Council will be employing specialists to remove any nests that are found after the spray has taken place.

‘The Moth is a non-native insect, originally discovered in London. It has spread outwards and has been found in the neighbouring boroughs of Bromley and Greenwich for several years. 

‘Its caterpillars primarily live and feed on Oak leaves, but they can also be found on the ground around infected trees.

‘While the adult moths are harmless, the hairs of their caterpillars contain a strong irritant. Contact with these hairs can cause severe irritation, with skin rashes and, less commonly, sore throats, breathing difficulties and eye problems.

‘Both people and animals can be affected by touching the caterpillars, their nests, or if windblown hairs make contact with the skin.

‘Please consult your pharmacist, GP, NHS Direct or Vet respectively if you or your animal are exposed and suffer an allergic reaction to the hairs of this caterpillar.’

Oak processionary moths (OPM) are covered in thousands of hairs to protect them which contain dangerous toxins capable of triggering severe reactions, asthma attacks and vomiting

The moths can defoliate oak trees but the main concern comes from their 63,000 hairs. They are distinguishable by their incredibly hairy bodies and white, silk-like nests on oak tress

Martin Elengorn, Cabinet Member for Environment, Planning and Sustainability at Richmond Council said: ‘The start of spring means the return of Oak Processionary Moth hatchlings.

‘Following first sighting of these hatchlings last week our specialist contractors have begun treating the recently hatched Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars, and we ask residents to be cautious when they see these creatures in their own gardens as they are a danger to your health.’

A spokesman for the Forestry Commissions previously warned people not to approach the caterpillars and to report any nests they find.

He said: ‘The caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs which contain an urticating, or irritating, substance called thaumetopoein, from which the species derives part of its scientific name.

‘Contact with the hairs can cause itching skin rashes and, less commonly, sore throats, breathing difficulties and eye problems.

‘This can happen if people or animals touch the caterpillars or their nests, or if the hairs are blown into contact by the wind.

‘The caterpillars can also shed the hairs as a defence mechanism, and lots of hairs are left in the nests, which is why the nests should not be touched.’ 

In 2013 the Forestry Commission used helicopters to blanket spray woodland areas where the caterpillars posed a health threat.

In Belgium, the annual invasion of toxic caterpillars has become so serious that the army has been sent in to incinerate the caterpillars’ nests.

WHAT ARE OAK PROCESSIONARY MOTHS? 

The oak processionary moth (OPM) is a non-native moth that has become established in parts of London and surrounding areas.

It can defoliate oak trees but the main concern comes from their 63,000 hairs. 

They are distinguishable by their incredibly hairy bodies and white, silk-like nests on oak tress.  

Hairs on the caterpillars, which feed off oak trees, contain toxins that cause severe dizziness, fever, and eye and throat irritations.

The oak processionary moth lays its eggs on oak trees and its larvae leave their nests to feed on oak leaves.

Once they have stripped a tree bare they move on to the next tree – following one another in a procession, hence their name. 

The pests nest on oak trees, leaving white, silk-like trails that are around a tennis ball in size 

Source: Read Full Article