Walk skills: how to deal with ticks and midges

Posted by Carey Davies on 14/07/2016
A close-up of a tick. Photo: Shutterstock / Risto0
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Bites from Britain’s tiny tyrants can range from annoying to life-threatening. With summer holidays upon us, here are a few tips to avoid becoming a midge meal, or worse.

Scotland’s midges are famous for their ability to send just about anyone into fits of flailing and cursing. But they are not the only bitey things you get in Britain: there are also sand-flies, stable flies, barn flies, black flies, mosquitos and leeches, to name a few.

Britain’s insect population is booming as the climate warms; not only is the species mix changing as new species immigrate from abroad, but the population of ticks is believed to be increasing. Despite being tiny and often able to escape unnoticed, ticks are potentially one of the British countryside’s most serious biological hazards.

Here are a few tips for dealing with the two insects you have to respect most as a walker or climber. It’s good to get close to nature, but that doesn’t mean you have to be eaten by it.

TICKS

Midges are a misery-causing nuisance, but ticks are by far the bigger risk. Tiny arachnids, they lurk in vegetation like long grass and bracken, and stealthily latch on to the flesh of passing walkers to feed.

Often tick bites are harmless, but some of them carry debilitating and even life-threatening illnesses, including Lyme disease, which is difficult to diagnose and if left untreated can have severe and long-lasting symptoms. Tick-borne encephalitis is also spreading abroad, including some European countries. In rare cases, both diseases can be fatal.

It sounds obvious, but prevention is much better than cure when it comes to ticks. Keep exposed flesh to a minimum when in long vegetation; gaiters and long sleeved tops are useful. Ticks can lurk at any time of year (particularly in our increasingly unpredictable climate), but typically the high season is May to October.

Always check your body for ticks after being in ‘tick country’. They can be as small as a poppy seed and possess an ability to get into the most unlikely of places, right up to the scalp and hairline, so be thorough. If you find one, don’t try and wrench, burn or suffocate it, as this can cause the tick to regurgitate into your blood. Specialist tick removal tools are simple to use and cheap to buy from most outdoor shops – check out an online video for how to use them.

MIDGES

The creature that reduces otherwise proud Scots to whimpering jessies might not seem like a big deal compared to the great apex predators of the world, but if you’ve ever been in Glen Coe or Torridon on a warm, still evening in June or July, floundering in an inescapable blizzard of midges, the prospect of being mauled by a bear might seem like a merciful escape.

The most tried-and-tested, effective repellents for midges (and other insects) contain at least 50% DEET, but it comes with a strong chemical smell and potential irritation. Specialist non- DEET repellents include Autan, Smidge and Nordic Summer. There are various home remedies like Avon Skin So Soft, but the effectiveness of these seems to vary from person to person.

Wearing a net over your head isn’t much fun, but midge nets are pretty much indispensable for summer camps in Scotland and can be picked up cheaply from most outdoor shops. Just make sure you get the ones designed for midges and not mosquitos, which have larger holes – you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Midges strike when you’re stationary, so keep moving. Midges also hate wind – plan your lunch breaks for higher, exposed positions and camp in places with a bit of a breeze to keep them away. If you pitch a tent in a warm, cloudy glen next to a river… well, you only have yourself to blame.

Expert Q&A

Heather Morning is the Mountain Safety Advisor for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

Q. When does the midge season start and end?

A. June to September are the high risk months. That said, if you hang out in a sheltered damp glen in May you might experience the first ‘delights’ of the season.

Q. How seriously should we take ticks?

A. Extremely! In comparison to midges, these are the devil. Midges might give you an irritating itch or an annoying rash, but ticks carry insidious life-threatening diseases if not caught early. If you have been in tick country, which could be anywhere in the British countryside and mountains, then it is well worth checking yourself for any unwanted guests. If spotted and removed early, ticks pose very little risk. If they are left attached, particularly for more than 24 hours, they may have had time to transmit Lyme disease or another nasty tick-borne disease into your blood stream.

Q. How do ticks get into such weird and unexpected places?

A. These canny wee devils have the ability to jump off vegetation onto your clothing and then travel up your trousers, cranking out climbing moves which we can only be envious of. They can appear days after your visit to the great outdoors by lurking in clothing, on car seats and pets. Prevention is always going to be better than cure.

Download an information leaflet about ticks (pdf)

Public Health England information issued April 2013

Download ‘Protect yourself from TBE in Europe’ (pdf)

WATCH: Ticks and how to deal with them on BMC TV

Read more walking skills articles


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Anonymous User
05/08/2016
I urge everyone to take notice of this ticks warning. Deer are among the most prolific hosts to ticks, badgers too, and both creatures are currently a plague here in Wessex. Here we are very familiar with ticks and we all observe the appropriate precautions, yet my wife developed Lyme Disease last year - without knowingly been 'ticked' for several years - and was rushed into hospital with a suspected stroke, subsequently diagnosed as Lyme Disease only after some two months of sheer hell. Once recognised it was swiftly cured. but it was a very unpleasant. Of course she was unlucky ; though always unpleasant, ticks don't ALL carry Lyme Disease.
It's worth noting that ticks - a rather larger varient - are prevalent in the Himalaya and in the Western US and the Canadian Rockies. Having been very ill with tick fever of some kind in Nepal, I'd recommend doing what wise local climbers do in the Rockies on approach marches through mountain meadows and forests : at every rest stop they strip down and check each other. After all, Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever is a killer.
You can't be too careful - but don't let it stop you climbing !
John Cleare

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