UK under threat from processionary caterpillars

Toxic Processionary caterpillars spreading in UK

Oak Processionary Caterpillars. Credit: GOV.UK

Although common in Spain, the UK has seen the spread of a similar poisonous caterpillar that poses a serious health risk to human and animal health.

Known as the oak processionary moth (OPM), new government regulations came into effect on Wednesday, May 24, in an effort to curtail its advancement, according to The Times.

The southeast of England has seen a rapid increase in the toxic moth and its larvae and leading researchers have warned that there is a strong possibility it will continue to spread across most of the country.

May and June are the worst time for the microscopic hairs of the caterpillar which can be carried on the wind. Symptoms include an irritable rash, eye complaints such as conjunctivitis, vomiting and dizziness, and breathing difficulties like asthma, which can affect people, dogs and horses.

The moth, very similar to the Pine Processionary Caterpillar found in Spain, was first discovered in the UK in 2006 near Kew Gardens, believed to be from an imported European oak tree, and was confined to southwest London for around 10 years.

Experts tracking the spread of the insect claim it had grown at about two miles a year, But in 2016, it increased to five miles a year. Now the insect is believed to have spread beyond London.

Despite restrictions on the movement of large oak trees the furthest known outbreak is in woods to the north of Southampton.

In the Netherlands, the spread of the moth has increased up to 12 miles a year, leading the Forestry Commission’s OPM project manager, Andrew Hoppit, to admit that they can only try to slow down the moth’s progress: ‘It’s a little brown moth, which flies at night-time, and is jolly difficult to find.’ The expert predicts that the moth with get as far north as the Humber to the Mersey.

Last year about 250 human cases were reported, although the number is thought to be higher as not many will be reported to the Forestry Commission.

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Written by

John Ensor

Originally from Doncaster, Yorkshire, John now lives in Galicia, Northern Spain with his wife Nina. He is passionate about news, music, cycling and animals. When he's not writing for EWN he enjoys gigging in a acoustic duo, looking after their four dogs, four chickens, two cats, and cycling up mountains very slowly.