Ticks in Scotland
- don't worry - but be aware
Encountering ticks in Scotland is something to keep in mind, and not just if you head for the hills. We really don't want to spoil your time here but these beasties are potentially much worse than everyday midges. Here are some tips to minimise your risks.
The possibility of picking up a tick in Scotland is something you may want to bear in mind when you are here.
Sometimes you hear that you are at risk from them only in the Scottish Highlands – but we have found these horrid little creatures in the Lowlands as well. (More to the point, they have found us.....)
There is not very much about them in tourism promotional literature. (I mean ‘North Coast 500 - Where even the Ticks are Friendly’ was never going to work, was it?)
Yes, this is one aspect of nature and outdoor Scotland we’d rather not think about. To be frank, ticks give most of us the creeps....
How do I recognise ticks in Scotland?
I have pictures of lots of things with a Scottish theme – from tea cosies shaped like sporrans to haggis fingers. But I have seldom steeled myself to photograph a tick here in Scotland. What a woose, eh? So, I thought I should just get it over and done with…read on…
I found this one - oh horror - on the carpet on the upstairs landing and I hope - in fact, I'm sure - it came off the dog. Somehow we missed it.
I have included a pen-top as comparison so you get an idea of what a well-fed tick looks like.
And it was very much alive and waving its little legs around when I took the picture. Eeek.
Actually, the last tick that attached itself to me I found while in the shower and, trust me, you wouldn't have wanted a picture of where that one was.
OK, here are some pics that should help you identify a tick. There’s a ‘not attached’ tick picture right here. See? It’s an insignificant spidery thing and very small beside my long-nailed guitar-picking thumb.
Where did I find it? Well, Johanna was sitting at breakfast at home when she saw it on her hand.
She’d just filled a bird-feeder and we reckon it was off that. (Yeah, birds get ticks too. Take care when you are gardening at home.)
I think she took it rather calmly, as I brushed it on to tissue in order to take the pic. This was in July 2019 - after a wet and cool June.
I note that I predicted further down the page that the beasties were likely to put in an appearance after all the June rain that year made the vegetation so lush. Yes, summer 2019 turned out to be the worst summer yet for ticks.
We walk regularly on the Speyside Way, just west of Portgordon, on the Moray coast, and both the dog and me have come home with ticks from an adjacent field.
Anyway... A tick on the lookout for a blood meal is a very small and insignificant spider-like creepy-crawlie. (Actually, it is a spider.)
In contrast, an engorged specimen, attached to you or your dog, is all too recognisable as an almost pea-sized shiny object, of a sort of mauve or dirty beige colour. If you find one on you, keep calm, as in.....
"How do I get the *!*@*!* thing off me?"
Look, I said, keep calm. It’s best to use a tick hook.
"But I haven’t got a *!*@*!* tick hook!"
No, that’s the problem for most of us. We must have bought quite a few since we have had dogs. We keep the hooks in a safe place, then two things happen.
Firstly, we can’t remember the safe place and second, even if we did remember, it probably isn’t close to us when we need them, possibly out in the country with the infernal creature sucking the lifeblood out of one of us, or the pooch.
The moral here is obvious, would't you say?
Smidge, the midge-deterrent people, have come up with a solution for folk like us who mislay tick-hooks.
OK, we haven’t used it ourselves, but this tick-removing card is getting good reviews and, best bit of all, you can keep it in your wallet, credit card case, phone case, handbag or any other handy space you can think of.
However, it’s only one of a number of tick removal tools. Read on…
Keep that tick-hook handy!
Just a second, our tick hook is in the drawer somewhere......Anyway, you can buy these hooks on line right here, or from veterinary surgeries, pharmacies, even outdoor clothing retailers.
A smooth rotating motion is necessary to make sure you get the beastie out cleanly.
Rather worryingly, the health page with the link below says you should pull steadily without rotating, but I think that's when you are using tweezers. The tick hook people definitely say rotate.
You definitely don’t want the whole sucking process to go into reverse during the operation. What I am trying to say is that you don’t want the blood back if the thing has ingested it.
Even better than a tick hook? Hmm.
Another clever device was brought to our attention, as an alternative to a hook, as sometimes things can go wrong, as we hint at above.
A tick lasso is easier to use - some say - and gets some five-star revues. So you should take a look at that as an easier option.
In fact, there are other devices - usually 'tweezery' sort of things...but best advice would be to carrying something. In our experience, various sizes of hooks work OK.
Roughy-toughy outdoorsy folk, such as our friend Veronica, tackle tick removal from dogs using only fingernails. If we happen to be with her at the time, we tend to scream and run away.
Frankly, I wouldn't recommend dealing with ticks this way at all. Obviously, the best advice is not to get the things on your skin in the first place.
If you have been anywhere in the outdoors with longish vegetation – bracken is notorious - then check your clothing afterwards – say, before you get back into the car.
Repeat: you are looking for very small spiders.
(NB, technically, they are not insects but arachnids - though their precise position in the animal kingdom can be explored at leisure - actually, further down the page as well - after you’ve brushed them off.)
And cover up. Wear long sleeves etc; tuck your trousers into your socks. (NB It must be your socks. Tucking your trousers into anyone else’s socks is much less effective.)
How do I avoid Scottish ticks?
STAY ON PAVEMENTS AT ALL TIMES. SIT IN PUBS A LOT!
No, seriously – and it is serious – I would repeat: don’t go brushing through heather, long grass or bracken with bare legs or arms. However, try explaining that to the dog.
Maybe you want your faithful (doggy) friend treated with preventative medication. We used to refer to it as ‘front-lining’ the dogs, after one of the brands. Treatments usually last for about a month.
However, I should confess now that we don't use chemical treatments on our little dog, as some of the treatments have been associated with fits and other side effects, especially in terriers.
OK, the jury is out on that one, but if you are a pet owner I suggest you do some on-line research.
Try putting "side effects of flea and tick medication" into your favourite search engine. But do this after you've read all of this page, will ya?
Another day when we found a tick...
Personally, after a lifetime of striding around hill and glen, field and forest, I have had bites, oh, a few times.
And Johanna once sat on the top of a cliff enjoying views of a seabird colony.
Then, a few hours later – oh, horror, she found a tick attached firmly to her side, below the waistband. So keep your shirt tucked in as well!
Which seabird colony, I hear you ask...well, Troup Head in Aberdeenshire, to be quite plain. Again, note, it wasn't amongst heathery Highland scenery.
(I've seen ticks about quite a few times right down by the coast - usually next to fields with sheep in them.)
By the way, you might by now want to take a look at some tick-proof clothing and accessories.
Do organic repellents work?
As for organic repellents, we make no claims other than the observation that we rub oregano oil on to our terrier's coat if we think we are going to be out in tick territory.
So far that's been reasonably successful, though you might not think so after viewing some of the pictures above! To be honest, there are times when we forget to put it on him!
Apparently a variety of essential oils as well as oregano are said to give some protection. Frankly, I’m not sure either way. But he smells nice anyway.
(Incidentally, have you ever thought that the phrase 'essential oil' is a contradiction in terms? Essential? It's definitely optional.)
Some signs of a tick bite
At the time, there is no pain with a bite, though the site can be itchy after removal.
You don’t want redness, especially spreading redness, to result, in which case medical advice should be sought.
(Again, I can remember removing one from the back of J’s arm. Two days later there certainly was a red linear patch from it.
The doctor gave her antibiotics and also blood-tested her, on a ‘just-in-case' basis.)
A small percentage of these insects carry Lyme Disease, an unpleasant illness with flu-like symptoms and worse. (More on this aspect below.)
While the worst place to find them is on you (obviously), I think the second-worst place to find them is at home on the carpet, swollen up.
Then you just have to hope it fell off the dog and not you.
Ticks are certainly not confined to Scotland – they are very widespread in other parts of Europe and beyond, but Scotland has a lot of wild country.
(Note also the ones carrying tick-borne encephalitis are found on mainland Europe but NOT in Scotland. However, there have been reports in some English newspapers that in 2019 some encephalitis-carrying ticks had been found in the far south of England.)
Ticks and a global warming connection?
Strangely enough, I roamed about the countryside as a boy and never once heard of ticks, but there is an increasing awareness of them today.
The theory - or, at least, the story going the rounds - is that the milder winters in Scotland these days are allowing a greater number of ticks to survive.
They don't get killed off and the result is higher numbers at the beginning of the season. Another symptom of global warming, perhaps? However I should point out that during the heatwave part of the summer of 2018, ticks seemed to be lying low, only appearing when the weather cooled.
(On the other hand, June 2019, was off-puttingly wet, and the little beasties put in an appearance shortly after…Should really start carrying that credit-card size tick remover all the time…)
When ticks are not spoiling your country break, they feed off a wide range of other Scottish animals, wild and domestic: sheep, hare, deer, foxes, etc.
This is why game managers, under pressure to build up unnaturally high grouse populations on managed grouse moors, enjoy slaughtering high numbers of mountain hares.
The poor hares get the blame for giving ticks to the grouse.
The bottom line is: don’t for a moment let these insects put you off your enjoyment of the country here – but be aware and be sensible.
You’ll still visit though, won’t you? I've never picked up a tick, say, in Edinburgh!
Ticks, deer and Lyme Disease
With it being accepted now that tick numbers are on the rise, the media is starting to run stories about what should be done.
Obviously, banning fossil fuels and in general stopping the long drawn out and remorseless screw-up of the planet would help, as it may reverse global warming and among all the other obvious benefits, such as us not becoming extinct as a species, tick numbers would fall.
But as that isn’t going to happen, some of the public are favouring a deer cull. Well, deer are large mammals that have increased greatly in Scotland and beyond in recent years. So it stands to reason that they must play host to ticks.
But not so fast...Professor Lucy Gilbert, an animal ecologist at Glasgow University and an expert on pests and parasites, reports in the Guardian that the incidence of Lyme disease is related to the number of infected ticks, not just the total number.
She points out the deer have antibodies that protect them from - wait for it - Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the disease carrying organism within infected ticks.
So while they may carry ticks around, there is a possibility that a deer being bitten by an infected tick may result in that tick being ‘cleansed’ of the Borrelia infection and hence rendered ‘safe’.
Complicated, isn’t it? Yes, deer will increase tick numbers but not necessarily infected tick numbers.
For everyday stravaiging tourists who pick up a tick, remember that while Lyme disease can be serious, not every tick carries it and make sure you have the tick removed promptly. (Well, who wouldn’t?)
Lyme disease or CFS?
I should also like to bring your attention to a piece in England’s Daily Torygraph (only noticed because I use a news aggregator - not my paper of choice.)
There it puts forward a claim from medical experts that some who suffer from Lyme Disease actually have a form of chronic fatigue syndrome (or CFS, sometimes disparagingly called ‘yuppie flu’).
It goes as far as to imply that patients almost prefer to have the Lyme disease label rather than the implication they have the ‘stigma’ of CFS.
I am in no position to comment further, except to suggest you don’t take ticks lightly.
Finally, here’s a correction - no, a whack across the fingers with a ruler - that I received from a kind reader, after I referred to the beasties as ‘insects’ on this page. So, so wrong… but I’ve changed this in the text now. Listen up…
"Ticks are not insects. I am a professional teacher of Natural History and this may seem unimportant but accuracy in science is everything. Ticks are arachnids, relations of spiders and scorpions, amongst others. They have 8 legs, whereas all insects have 6. Insects have 3 body parts: Head, Thorax, Abdomen. Arachnids either have two or one body part. In short Arachnids are NOT Insects. It’s the same as calling a dog a fish. Get it right and inspire confidence in the information you offer. Best wishes !"
My Border terrier is now worried I will mistake him for a fish, possibly a dogfish.
More on midges here.
Cruising Loch Lomond to escape the midges
Best way to see the Loch Lomond area? Go cruising Loch Lomond. Especially in summer to avoid the biting clegs and midges. Seriously - avoid driving the Aberfoyle-Stronachlachar-Inversnaid at peak times. We'll tell you why.