Gamekeepers combating one of the most troublesome threats in the countryside have found an ally out of the mouths of babes.
Inspecting wader chicks regularly and accurate reporting of findings is proving the best method to monitor tick populations and in turn controlling the spread of Lyme disease to humans and other animals.
Golden plover chicks are especially vulnerable to ticks on moorlands so chick monitoring of golden plover and regular reporting of tick burden incidences to the GWCT (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) is helping to monitor tick numbers and support the many ground-nesting wader populations on Scottish moorlands including lapwing and curlew.
Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that live in moorland heather and feed on host species including wader chicks, red grouse, deer, mountain hare and other moorland birds. The most common blood-sucking tick in the UK is the sheep tick (Ixodes ricinus) which can spread the louping-ill virus. This same species of infected tick can also transmit the serious Lyme disease illness (borrelia) to humans, dogs and horses.
Notable celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic who have spoken publicly about their battle with Lyme disease include the Canadian singers-songwriters Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne, actor Alec Baldwin and England rugby player Matt Dawson who required heart surgery after contracting it.
These high-profile cases have helped to raise awareness among the public about the threat from ticks and how prevalent the disease is. The official records for the UK indicate that around 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease are reported each year, although new research* suggests incidences could be three times higher. The illness has many symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose.
A number of estates and farms within the Lammermuir Hillls, that are members of the Southern Uplands Moorland Group, have been happy to report a significant reduction in tick numbers over a period of time now. One such estate that has benefitted from this approach is Burncastle.
Craig Dickman, head gamekeeper at Burncastle Estate, said:
“The tick control programme on our estate and in much of the Lammermuir Hills is very proactive and has improved year on year due in no small part to this new approach in monitoring. The estates are very happy to report that there has been no significant tick issue now for a number of years. It provides a more accurate picture of the infestation levels in any one season and allows the estates to best plan management practices to the benefit of all moorland species, including wader chicks in particular which are of national conservation concern.
“Monitoring and reporting of tick infestation on golden plover, curlew and red grouse chicks alongside traditional tick control measures of sheep mopping, careful management of deer and hare numbers, as well as bracken control, has proven to be a very successful method for controlling the tick population across the Lammermuir Hills, and many other Scottish estates are adopting the same measures.”
High burdens of ticks are likely to reduce the health of moorland wader chicks and grouse chicks and the sheer number of ticks on a small mammal or bird can also be enough to weaken or kill it, even if they are not carrying a disease. Young chicks are at higher risk of succumbing to tick-borne diseases as they have not yet learnt to self-preen and ticks will tend to attach to inaccessible areas with less feathers, particularly around the eyes.
Sheep farming plays an important role in looking after Scotland’s moorland and flocks of sheep are also an important element of tick management. Ticks can be killed by treating sheep with an acaricide dip, reducing the danger to the sheep themselves and limiting the chance of ticks attaching themselves to other animals, birds and humans.
Additional tick control measures also include, muirburn, aerial-spraying of bracken together with the careful management of deer and hare numbers on Scottish grouse moors as both species pose as ideal hosts for ticks to feed on.