Dog owners and dog walkers in parts of London and Surrey are being reminded not to let their pets approach caterpillars of the oak processionary moth (OPM), which are now active in and around oak trees in these areas.
Parents are also being advised to keep children away from the caterpillars and their nests, because the caterpillars’ hairs can cause itching skin rashes and other health problems. The public is also urged to report any sightings here.
Affected areas include boroughs in West and South-West London; Bromley and Croydon and southern parts of Lewisham in South London; and Elmbridge and Spelthorne in Surrey. The greatest risk period is May to July, although nests should not be approached at any time.
OPM caterpillars are a tree pest which was accidentally introduced to Britain. They feed on oak leaves, and in large numbers they can severely defoliate trees and leave them vulnerable to other pests and diseases.
Their tiny hairs contain a protein which can cause itchy skin rashes and, less frequently, eye and throat irritations and breathing difficulties in people and animals. The hairs can be blown on the wind, and left in their nests in and under oak trees. This, as well as the fact that the caterpillars sometimes crawl in nose-to-tail processions
across the ground between oak trees, makes curious dogs particularly at risk of getting hairs in their mouths and noses.
Dr Deborah Turbitt, Deputy Regional Director for Health Protection, London, endorsed the ‘don’t touch’ advice issued by The Forestry Commission saying, “See a pharmacist for relief from milder skin or eye irritations following possible OPM contact, or consult a GP or NHS111 for more-serious reactions. Contact a vet if animals are affected.
She continued, “We have issued advice to local GPs and health professionals to help them identify when patients have been affected by the caterpillars and to advise them on appropriate treatment.”