An infestation of caterpillars, which can cause asthma attacks, vomiting and rashes, has occurred in southeast England. Oak tree processioners, in their larval stage now, have been found in areas including Croydon, Twickenham, Epping Forest, Watford, Ealing and several London suburbs. Other pests were discovered in Bracknell Forest, Slough and Guildford.
Hair on the moths contains toxins that cause severe dizziness, fever, and eye and throat irritation, health officials have warned. The caterpillars that feed on oak trees have pronounced, extremely hairy bodies and should not be touched. Sightings should be reported to the Forestry Commission.
The species derives its common name from the fact that it lives mainly on oak trees and moves in nose-to-tail processions, while the first part of its scientific name ̵
Contact can cause itching, rash, and, less commonly, sore throats, difficulty breathing, and eye problems that are triggered when people or pets touch the skin caterpillars or their nests, or when the hair is brought into contact by the wind. Nests should not be touched without protective clothing, the commission warned.
The Commission said 150 hotspots have been identified and traps are being set up over the next few days to kill the caterpillars. Hundreds of other spots in London are to be sprayed with insecticides.
The oak processionary moths are native to southern Europe, but their habitat has expanded north over the last 20 years and has established itself as far north as the Netherlands Northern Germany. It was accidentally brought to Britain in 2005 from eggs that had been placed on live, imported oak plants. The current infestation was probably caused by a similar source, the commission said.