Greatstone Dunes are a breeding area for the Brown Tail Moth Caterpillar. The caterpillar is a voracious eater of vegetation, especially in the spring, and although it prefers hawthorn and blackberry, it will eat practically any type of tree or bush. The caterpillar also releases irritant hairs into the air which can cause skin irritation, and can affect some people quite severely.
As you can see from the picture on the right, the caterpillar of the Brown Tail Moth is brown, has a dotted white line down each side and two very distinctive red dots on the back of its tail.
The moths lay their eggs in the mid summer and the caterpillars hatch and form silk tents (see pictures below and right) in which they hibernate. Each tent contains large numbers of the caterpillars and they remain hibernating until the arrival of warm weather brings them out.
The caterpillars carry up to two million spiked and barbed hairs which can penetrate skin, causing an irritant reaction. Anyone who inhales or comes into contact with the tiny bristles can develop severe breathing problems, headaches, rashes and even conjunctivitis.
The Brown Tail Moth Caterpillar can also cause a painful rash and you should take adequate precautions to avoid coming into contact with the caterpillars. If you are unfortunate to get a rash, it will normally only last 2-3 days. During this time it will be very irritable but you should not scratch and some relief can be obtained by applying calamine lotion. If the rash persists, consult your doctor.
The caterpillars continue to be a hazard for another four weeks until their development finishes when, as moths, they pose no threat.
Caterpillars in Greatstone
It was evident during the winter of 2010/11 that the number of the caterpillar cocoons that formed on the bushes, particularly the sea buckthorn, in Greatstone Dunes were larger in number than in many previous years. This, together with the above average temperatures experienced in April 2011, gave rise to exceptionally large numbers of the caterpillars. As well as on the dunes, where they would normally be found, they
over ran public areas of the beach, beach access footpaths, the toilet block in the main car park and many other areas. (see pictures right)
Once alerted to the problem by local residents, Shepway District Council (SDC) posted warning notices and undertook spraying of the caterpillars. The spray takes up to 7 days to work effectively and so does not show an immediate response. This is because it is based on a bacteria that the caterpillars need to ingest before it can work.
In The Future
The root cause of the infestation in April 2011 was that the large number of cocoons in the dunes (see picture below) were allowed to remain until the warm weather 'brought them out' in very large numbers. In particular, had the bushes with the cocoons where they are close to public places
and local businesses been destroyed in the winter months, then perhaps the outbreak could have been avoided, or at least minimised.
However, this is more easily said than done. Greatstone Dunes are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which means special permission is required from Natural England to destroy all these cocoon infested bushes.
SDC have said that in the longer term they are planning a programme of breeding interruption during the summer using a pheromone system to attract male moths and prevent them from breeding. They are also going to significantly increase the work that they do to remove and burn caterpillar tents during autumn and winter 2011/12. This will include the removal
of some of sea buckthorn.
See SDC letter of 26 May 2011
Management of Greatstone Dunes SSSI
In the past SDC and the Romney Marsh Countryside Project (RMCP) have had the issue of residents not wanting the sea buckthorn removed in the Dunes due to privacy and landscape. However, on a biodiversity and wildlife issues, the amount/area of sea buckthorn in Greatstone Dunes is far too much and the proposal is to reduce the area of sea buckthorn down to 15% over the next
5 years, using staff, contractors and volunteers. This will be a joint partnership between SDCl, RMCP and Natural England and serious scrub removal costs money, the grants and contractors all take time to apply for, sort out and implement.
The RMCP will be organising work parties/volunteer days in Greatstone Dunes in late autumn 2011 to remove sea buckthorn and they rely on volunteers to aid the management of these Dunes in the future. So the more residents which come along, the more benefits will be seen in our local wildlife in the Dunes. (Details of the days will be posted by the late summer.)
Brown tail Moths are found all over South East England and the same problems and issues are found across the region in many areas/towns etc. Greatstone has been bad this year, but so has a number of other areas as well. Due to the “plague” proportions, spraying is a reduction process and will not solve the problem on its own. Driest and warmest spring on record = good breeding season for many insects.
more about the Brown Tail Moth
Shepway District Council webpage on the Brown Tail Moth Caterpillar
Romney Marsh Countryside Project Website
Natural England Website
Sites of Special Scientific Interest