Kew arboretum head Tony Kirkham has become a victim of the oak processionary moth that is causing human health problems and defoliation in west London.
Despite managing to avoid direct contact with any of the thousands of moths that have invaded Kew this month, he was stung on the upper body by hairs from the moth, resulting in a contact dermatitis allergic rash.
Kirkham was using a flame gun to control the moths when the attack happened. “They got angry and shot out hairs that penetrated my clothing,” he recalls.
Prior to the incident, Kirkham had been on a fact-finding mission to Belgium, where the government drafted in the army to deal with the problem. He has since put sticky bands around affected trees at Kew to stop caterpillars moving down trunks and endangering humans.
Kirkham said: “We hope to have eradicated all the nests at Kew by the end of the week. But they’re difficult to spot if you don’t have your eye in. We’re training Richmond and Ealing park staff. It’s important we get on top of it or the problem may double next year.”
The Thaumetopea processionea, which has arrived in the UK from infected plants from the Mediterranean, has affected more than 35 oaks at Kew and has spread from there across west London — the worst ever outbreak of its kind in the UK, according to managing director Gerard Bonner of tree consultancy Bartletts, which is conducting eradication attempts.
The firm is using bacteria, Savona industrial soap and night-time applications of Dimilin Flo insecticide. Staff are wearing full-body cover and masks for protection.
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