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Invading gardens, the toxic caterpillar that can leave you gasping
08-07-2010, 06:08 AM,
Invading gardens, the toxic caterpillar that can leave you gasping
Invading gardens, the toxic caterpillar that can leave you gasping

Britain is losing the battle against an invasion of potentially deadly caterpillars, plant experts warn.

The oak processionary moth - which during its caterpillar stage is a toxic pest whose hairs can trigger severe asthma attacks - is spreading out of control in England.

The caterpillar is covered with bristles that can be blown in clouds in the wind, causing serious irritation to the eyes, lungs and skin.

[Image: article-0-0AA71DFB000005DC-565_468x248.jpg]
On the march: The oak processionary moth - which is toxic during its caterpillar stage - is spreading out of control in England

[Image: article-0-0AA7E5F7000005DC-700_468x310.jpg]
Toxic: The caterpillar is covered with bristles that can be blown in clouds in the wind causing serious irritation to eyes, lungs and skin

Although the insect can devastate oak trees, stripping their leaves, wildlife experts say its biggest threat is to human health.

Tony Kirkham, the head of Kew Gardens arboretum, called on the Government to step in to help wipe out the pest.

'We will lose control of it this year,' he told the magazine Horticulture Week. 'Within five years it will affect everyone within the M25.'

The insects pose a particular risk to humans because they prefer isolated trees to large canopies, so are most common on trees in towns, cities and parks, and on the edges of forests, where they come into contact with people.

They arrived in Britain in 2006, on a batch of oaks shipped in from the Netherlands, quickly becoming established in the South East and appear to be on the move.

Oak processionary moths are native to central and southern Europe but have spread hundreds of miles north in the past few decades.
Enlarge the five year health risk.jpg

The caterpillars hatch from eggs laid on pencil-thin branches high up in the tree canopy in April and grow into aggressive 1.5-inch long caterpillars living in silk nests - often on the trunk of a tree or hanging from a branch.

Each caterpillar is covered with thousands of hairs which it can eject at will, sending the bristles floating through the air.

The hairs can provoke allergic reactions, skin rashes, running eyes and breathing problems. For people with asthma, they can trigger potentially lethal attacks.

Even the abandoned nests contain shed skins, pupal cases

and detached hairs and can be dangerous long after the larvae have pupated into moths.

In Belgium, the army has been used to vacuum up nests of the caterpillars and burn them in the summer.

Four years ago Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, destroyed three nests discovered in its world-famous collection of trees.

Last year, it had to wipe out 800 nests. This year it has been forced to spray all its oak trees with pesticide.

On the Continent the insects have spread to hornbeam, hazel, beech, sweet chestnut and birch trees. The adult moths live for just two or three days between July and September.

Mr Kirkham said the moths were spreading and could soon become a huge problem in nearby Richmond Park, which he said would be 'a playground' for them.

He also believes that they will soon be joined by another pest from mainland Europe: the pine processionary moth, which is also toxic to humans and more dangerous to trees.

On Saturday the Mail told how southern England was also seeing a large increase in the numbers of the brightly coloured Jersey tiger moth.

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