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Oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) adult Oak Processionary Caterpillars Oak processionary moth caterpilars wrapped around a twig White, silken nest of oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) on trunk of oak tree Larvae of oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) in classic nose-to-tail procession across the ground, London Skin rash caused by contact with hairs of oak processionary moth caterpillar Skin rash caused by contact with hairs of oak processionary moth caterpillar

Oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea)

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LEAFLETS AND POSTERS - We've produced a public information leaflet and poster about Oak processionary moth (OPM). Please feel free to print them off from the links at right if you can use them. Some hard copies are also available - contact us on opm@forestry.gsi.gov.uk if you want some.

NEST BUILDING - We advise the public not to touch or approach the white, silken webbing nests and trails which OPM caterpillars are now (June and July) building on the trunks and branches of oak trees in the parts of London, Surrey and Berkshire where there are outbreaks of this pest. Please report them to us or your Council - read on for further information.

Facts about OPM treatment at Sulham Woods

Some commentators are making inaccurate claims about the damage that might be done by aerial treatment of two small parts of Sulham Woods, near Pangbourne in West Berkshire. The treatment will not kill all moth and butterfly species in the area. These are the facts:

  • The treatment area of 2.6 hectares (6.5 acres) represents less than 3% of the total area occupied by Sulham Woods.
  • The treatment product used, Bt, is a biological control product which remains fully active for only 1 to 4 days. Therefore caterpillars of other species of moth and butterfly which feed at other times of the year would not have been affected by the treatment.
  • Spraying Bt from the air at this time of year will only affect other species of caterpillars feeding in the tree canopy at this point in time.
  • White admiral butterfly caterpillars feed on honeysuckle, which occurs towards ground level in the woodland, where very little Bt would have reached.
  • There was no prospect of significant impact on populations of birds, threatened species or other wildlife. 
  • Aerial treatment is one of the most precise methods available.

Evidence from scientific experts and continental Europe shows that other species usually recolonise the area from the surrounding woodland, and the populations quickly recover. With Natural England, we are monitoring the effects of 2013's aerial treatment of Herridge's Copse on moths and butterflies. Butterfly Conservation helped us to design the monitoring programme. We take our responsibilities to wildlife very seriously, and have worked closely with Natural England and environmental groups to ensure that the methods we use to tackle OPM are the least damaging possible.

If we failed to tackle OPM, the consequences for wildlife, including moths and butterflies, and human and animal health, would be very serious. This is because:

  • OPM would be very likely to spread to much of Britain and cause considerably more damage to our oak tree habitats, causing far greater impact on moths and butterflies as well as many other plants, insects, birds, fungi, lichen, mosses and other life forms which depend on them and on one another; and
  • Experience elsewhere in Europe is that fear of the unpleasant skin rashes, eye irritations, sore throats and possible breathing difficulties caused by OPM hairs could deter people from visiting or working in affected woodlands, where it would be very difficult to control. Wild animals, pets and farm livestock could be exposed to suffering, and control could become prohibitively expensive. 

DescriptOak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionae) larvaion

Oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea, OPM) is a native of southern Europe, where local environmental factors and predators keep its populations in check. Aided by the trade in live plants, and possibly by the changing climate, it has become established as far north as the Netherlands and northern Germany. It was first accidentally introduced to Britain in 2005.

The larvae, or caterpillars, of OPM are a pest because they can be a hazard to oak trees and to human and animal health. 

OPM caterpillars are most easily recognised by their distinctive habit of moving about in late spring and early summer in nose-to-tail processions, from which they derive their name, and the fact that they almost exclusively live in and feed on oak trees.

They also build distinctive white, silken webbing nests in oak trees and leave white, silken trails on the trunks and branches in early summer. These become discoloured after a short time, and more difficult to see as a result.

The adult moth is an undistinctive, brown moth very similar in appearance to other, harmless species. They are active from mid to late summer and lay their eggs on the smaller twigs and branches in oak trees.

Identification

Images

Identification guide

Youtube videos

Caterpillars which can be mistaken for OPM


The threat

OPM caterpillars can threaten the health of oak trees because they feed on the leaves. Large populations can strip whole oak trees bare of leaves, leaving them vulnerable to attack by other pests and diseases, and less able to withstand adverse environmental events such as drought and flood.

The caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs which contain an urticating, or irritating, substance called thaumetopoein, from which the species derives part of its scientific name. Contact with the hairs can cause itching skin rashes and, less commonly, sore throats, breathing difficulties and eye problems. This can happen if people or animals touch the caterpillars or their nests, or if the hairs are blown into contact by the wind. The caterpillars can also shed the hairs as a defence mechanism.

Health precautions

Thanks in part to our and our partners' proactive efforts to control or, where possible, to eradicate this pest, there have been no serious health events associated with OPM since it was first discovered in Britain in 2006. However, we advise people in the affected areas to take some simple precautions to help minimise the health risks to themselves and their pets and livestock. These are:

DO NOT:

  • touch or approach nests or caterpillars;
  • let children touch or approach nests or caterpillars;
  • let animals touch or approach nests or caterpillars; and
  • try removing nests or caterpillars yourself.

DO:

  • teach children not to touch or approach the nests or caterpillars;
  • train or restrain pets from touching or approaching them;
  • see a pharmacist for relief from skin or eye irritations after possible OPM contact;
  • call NHS111 or see a GP if you think you or someone you care for has had a serious allergic reaction;
  • see a vet if you think your pet or livestock has been seriously affected;
  • call in a pest control expert to remove infestations in your own trees; and
  • report sightings of OPM to your Council, or to the Forestry Commission using Tree Alert (see below).

Further health advice is available from the NHS Choices website.


Outbreak stage

Map of London boroughs with OPM outbreaks

Map: Orange shading shows areas of London outbreaks in 2013.

Large sized map

There are three confirmed outbreaks of breeding OPM in Great Britain, all of them in southern England:

• several boroughs in West and South-West London and the Elmbridge and Spelthorne districts of Surrey (discovered 2006)

• Bromley and Croydon Boroughs in South London (2012)

• Pangbourne in West Berkshire (2010)

We believe is not currently possible to eradicate the largest, West and South-West London/Surrey outbreak, but we and our partners are working hard to minimise its size, spread and impact as much as possible.

The Pangbourne outbreak is very small, with no nests found in 2013, compared with 61 in 2011, indicating that it might be close to eradication. However, pheromone traps caught five adult male moths in late summer 2013, indicating that the species had not been eliminated from the area, and we continue to work with West Berkshire Council to eradicate the outbreak. We are also working with partners to attempt to eradicate the South London outbreak, which is still relatively small and in a concentrated area.

Evidence of OPM introductions was also found in Leeds in 2009 and Sheffield in 2010. However, follow-up annual surveys have found no evidence that these introductions have resulted in the establishment of breeding populations there.

All of these introductions and outbreaks are thought to have resulted from the importation from nurseries in continental Europe of young oak trees on which over-wintering OPM eggs had been laid.

Action


Action to control OPM includes:

  • winter surveying for spent nests in oak trees in affected and at-risk areas, which can tell us where we might expect to find the pest the following spring and summer;
  • destruction of egg masses before the eggs hatch the following spring, although egg masses are very difficult to find;
  • surveying of oak trees for signs of eggs, caterpillars, nests and other evidence during the spring and early summer, and marking these for treatment;
  • carefully controlled treatment of affected trees with approved insecticide in spring to kill the caterpillars soon after they emerge. This is the most reliable and effective method of control, and is where we have concentrated our efforts;
  • manual removal of nests and caterpillars by suitably trained and equipped operators, usually using vacuum equipment, during the brief pupal stage, thereby reducing the number of adult moths which will emerge from the pupae; and
  • pheromone trapping of adult male moths in late summer and early autumn, which can tell us where we might expect to find the pest the following year.

Operations are planned and co-ordinated by Outbreak Management Teams or liaison groups comprising the Forestry Commission, local authorities, major land-owning and land-managing organisations, Public Health England and regulatory authorities. These groups are advised by entomologists from the Forestry Commission’s Forest Research agency. Our response to outbreaks of OPM follows our contingency plan. 

Contingency plan

Most insecticide applications are undertaken from the ground, but we treated about 10 hectares of woodland near Pangbourne in West Berkshire from the air, using a helicopter, in May 2013.

We treated these woods because OPM infestations were confirmed in them in 2012 when 'spent' nests were found. The adult moths which would have emerged from those nests are highly likely to have mated and established a breeding population in the woods, raising the prospect of the pest spreading into other areas and creating an ever-increasing problem.

We opted for aerial spraying rather than ground-based treatment because OPM is very difficult to find in a closed-canopy woodland environment, and it can be difficult to treat effectively from the ground, largely because early in the caterpillar stage they live very high in the trees. Ground-based treatment, including spraying and manual removal, requires good visibility and unrestricted access to the trees. Although these techniques are routinely used in parks and gardens, access and visibility in a woodland environment are usually impeded to the extent that treatment from the ground is impossible. Aerial spraying is therefore the only way to be reasonably sure of effective treatment in these circumstances.

Two small areas of Sulham Woods, which are public woodland near Pangbourne managed by the Forestry Commission, were treated from the air in May 2014 following the interceptions of adult male moths nearby in late sumer 2013. 

Managing affected trees

Do not try to remove OPM caterpillars or nests yourself, because of the health risks, and because to be most effective the job should be carefully timed and carried out by professionals with appropriate training and equipment. Report the presence of the pest to your local council or to us via Tree Alert (below), and get a professional pest control operator to remove the infestations. Your local council or our Plant Health Service can provide details of suitable pest control operators working in the area.

Councils

Plant Health Service

Larger land-managing organisations with professional grounds or tree-care staff might consider acquiring their own equipment and training their own staff to do the job.

Even if OPM is not known to be present in local trees, tree surgeons and others working on or close to oak trees in affected areas are strongly advised to wear protective clothing and follow the Good Practice Guidance.

Guidance for surveying and control


Surveying, larvae treatment and nest removal guidance

Survey and intervention guidance

Regulations, Restrictions and Powers

Among the key laws and regulations applying to OPM are amendments to the Plant Health (Forestry) Order 2005 (S12008/644) requiring that:

  • all oak plants taller than 2m coming into the UK from another European Union Member State must be accompanied by an official statement, or 'plant passport', confirming that the plants have been grown in a nursery where the moth is not present, and which has been free of symptoms for at least the most-recent growing season; and
  • material from felled or pruned oak trees in the affected areas may not be moved outside the affected areas without consulting the Forestry Commission’s Plant Health Service first for advice about handling and moving the oak material.

Notification of imports: The Plant Health (England) (Amendment) Order 2013, which came into force on 17 January 2013, requires that pending landings of oak plants in England must be pre-notified to the plant health authorities. This Order also covered Platanus (Plane), Castanea (Sweet chestnut) and Fraxinus (Ash).  Full details of the regulations are at http://www.fera.defra.gov.uk/plants/plantHealth/treeHealth/index.cfm.

Plant Health Notices: We may serve statutory Plant Health Notices on the owners of infested trees discovered in surveys, requiring them to remove the infestations. Issuing these notices is routine procedure which helps us with monitoring and management of the pest, and does not mean that owners are in any trouble. However, failure to comply with a notice can result in enforcement action and possible prosecution.

Protected Zone status: European Union legislation will be introduced in October 2014 which will recognise those parts of the UK that are outside the affected areas as a 'protected zone'. This legislation will supersede the national requirements, and will mean that all oak trees supplied to the protected zone must be free from the pest.

Origin

OPM is a native of southern and central Europe, where predators and environmental factors usually keep its numbers in check and minimise its impact. However, aided by movement of plants, its range has been expanding northwards over the past 20 years, and it has become established as far north as the Netherlands, Belgium and northern Germany. Climate change might be a factor - the reduced incidence of cold, wet weather during the springtime larval emergence period in recent years might have enabled it to become established further north than would have been possible in the past.

Reporting suspected cases

Please report any suspected finds of Oak processionary moth to us using our Tree Alert app or on-line form (below), or to your local council.

However, before doing so, please check:

  • that the affected tree is an oak tree. OPM caterpillars live almost exclusively in oak trees, and will generally only attack other trees if they become very short of oak leaves to eat. Oak trees are fairly easy to identify by their distinctive leaves and bark. OPM caterpillars do not live on fences and similar structures, as some caterpillar species do.
  • that the caterpillars are oak processionary caterpillars. They have distinctive habits of moving about in nose-to-tail processions and clustering together. They are also most likely to be seen in or near oak trees, and even when seen on the ground, this will usually be close to oak trees. Identification guidance.
  • that the nests are OPM nests. Many other, harmless moth and butterfly species build silken webbing nests in trees and shrubs, but OPM nests:
    • are usually roughly semi-spherical or teardrop-like in shape before they begin to collapse;
    • occur almost exclusively in oak trees;
    • are almost always attached to the trunks or branches of oak trees; and
    • are almost never woven among the leaves. Silken webbing nests among oak leaves, or in other trees and shrubs and other structures, are therefore almost certainly NOT made by OPM and need not be reported. 

Please report nests even if you do not see any caterpillars with them, because even spent nests can contain large numbers of the irritating hairs. Nests are also a useful sign that the pest is in the area. They will usually be found on the trunks or branches of oak trees, but they can be dislodged and might be on the ground.

We do not need reports of adult moths.

Tree Alert iconIf you think you have spotted the pest, please check the symptoms section above before using our Tree Alert form:

 

 or our free App.

Get it on Google Play Get it on iTunes

or by contacting your local Council .


Life cycle


Adult moths emerge from the pupae in mid to late summer. They live for an average of three days, during which time they mate and lay their eggs in healthy oak trees, usually high in the canopy.

The eggs spend the winter on the trees, and the larvae/caterpillars emerge the following spring. Larval emergence begins about mid to late April in an average spring. As they grow, the caterpillars descend lower in the trees to feed and build nests, and this is when they are most likely to be seen by the public. It is also when they develop the irritating hairs which pose the health problems. They spend their days in the nests, emerging mostly at dawn and dusk to feed, although this pattern can vary. They can sometimes be seen processing across the ground between oak trees.

In July the caterpillars congregate in the nest to pupate into adult moths, which can take up to four weeks. Spent nests found after adult moth emergence will invariably contain pupae cases.


Science

OPM Pest Risk Analysis 

Scientific research Surveys

Surveys of the affected London Boroughs have been carried out each spring and summer since the outbreak was first discovered in 2006, and the larvae and nests found have been removed. Details of the action taken are contained in the reports which are available on request.

Further information

For information about regulations and requirements applying to the importation of oak plants, or to the movement, handling and disposal of oak material in the OPM-affected areas, contact our Plant Health Service on:

Tel: 0300 067 5155

Email: plant.health@forestry.gsi.gov.uk

General public enquiries can be made to our Public Enquiry service on 0845 FORESTS (0845 367 3787) or enquiries@forestry.gsi.gov.uk  

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Last updated: 07/11/2014