A comprehensive guide to Ticks in Scotland (2024)

Written by Chris Thornton | 1st of January 2024
Ticks in Scotland

Midges are well known as being a pest in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, but ticks in Scotland are actually a far greater menace and a major concern for public health.

These tiny creatures are found globally and are particularly prevalent in areas with warm, humid climates. Their notoriety comes from their capacity as vectors, transmitting a range of diseases to both animals and humans. These diseases, often debilitating and sometimes even life-threatening, are a significant cause for concern.

Ticks aren't confined to the stereotypical hot and humid locales. They are a growing concern in places one might not initially expect, such as Scotland. This article will delve into the tick situation in Scotland, discussing the various species present, their habitats, and the diseases they carry.

Table of contents:

 

What is a tick?

A tick is a small arachnid in the order Ixodida. Ticks are ectoparasites, meaning they live by feeding on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. They are typically 3 to 5mm long and are most easily recognised by their eight legs - a characteristic they share with spiders, being part of the same class, Arachnida.

Tick diagram
Male/female ticks, with life cycle and body changes after feeding.

Tick species in Scotland

Scotland is primarily home to two species of ticks: Ixodes ricinus and Ixodes hexagonus.

Ixodes ricinus

Known commonly as the sheep tick, deer tick, or castor bean tick, this is the most common tick species in Scotland. Despite its common name, it's not just found on sheep; it's a generalist species that will feed from a wide range of mammals and birds. Ixodes ricinus is the primary vector of Lyme disease in Scotland, a condition caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.

Facts on Ixodes ricinus:

  • Also known as a deer tick, sheep tick or castor bean tick.

  • Requires a humidity of 80% and good vegetation coverage to thrive.

  • Has a life cycle of larvae, nymph, then adult.

  • It feeds on a wide variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Image of Ixodes ricinus isolated on white. Ticks check.
Ixodes ricinus

Ixodes hexagonus

This species is often called the hedgehog tick because it's frequently found on hedgehogs. However, like Ixodes ricinus, it's not exclusive to one host and will feed from various animals. This species is less common than Ixodes ricinus but still plays a significant role in the tick population in Scotland.

Facts on Ixodes hexagonus:

  • Also known as the hedgehog tick, as it seems to specialize in feeding from hedgehogs, but it can also be found on foxes, badgers, dogs, and cats.

  • Peak season in spring and autumn.

  • It has a large white bean-shaped body when fully engorged.

Ixodes hexagonus tick on a stick.
Ixodes hexagonus

These species can be distinguished based on their appearance and preferred hosts. Both ticks are small, but the adult female Ixodes ricinus ticks are slightly larger than Ixodes hexagonus. The feeding habits of ticks also help differentiate them; for instance, Ixodes ricinus can be found in a broader range of hosts than Ixodes hexagonus.

Ticks can also look different depending on whether they have recently fed. Their bodies can be quite small or fat and engorged with blood.

Tick habitats in Scotland

Ticks inhabit various environments, but they are especially common in certain habitats. While they can be found throughout Scotland, specific types of landscapes and ecosystems provide the ideal conditions for ticks to thrive.

Rural Areas

Ticks are a common sight in rural regions of Scotland, including forests, grasslands, and moorlands. These environments provide the right combination of humidity and temperature for ticks to survive. Additionally, these areas are abundant with potential hosts, from small mammals to large grazing animals.

Forests

The moist and humid conditions in forests offer an ideal habitat for ticks. The leaf litter provides them with the humidity they need to survive, and the presence of numerous potential hosts, such as deer and rodents, offers ample feeding opportunities.

Grasslands

Long grass in areas such as meadows and pastures can be a prime location for ticks, especially at the edge of paths or trails. Ticks often climb to the tips of grass blades, where they can easily latch onto passing animals or humans.

Moorlands

Moorlands, characterized by open areas of low-growing vegetation, also offer suitable environments for ticks. Animals such as sheep and deer that graze in these areas are common hosts for ticks.

Urban and Suburban Tick Habitats

Ticks are not exclusive to rural areas but have adapted to urban and suburban environments. City parks, gardens, and green spaces can all harbour ticks, especially if these areas have long grass and are frequented by wildlife or domestic pets.

Tick season

Typically, tick activity in Scotland is highest between spring and autumn, peaking during the warmer months. The precise timing can vary based on factors such as temperature and humidity, but the general pattern holds true across the country.

  1. Spring: As temperatures rise, ticks become more active, emerging from their winter dormancy. The increase in animal activity during spring, including the movement of potential host species, also contributes to higher tick activity.

  2. Summer: The warm and humid conditions of the Scottish summer provide an ideal environment for ticks. This is often the peak of tick activity, and it's also when people are most likely to encounter ticks due to increased outdoor activities.

  3. Autumn: Tick activity generally continues into autumn, although it begins to decline as temperatures drop.

  4. Winter: During the colder winter months, ticks are typically less active. However, some tick activity may still be observed in milder winters, particularly in sheltered and humid microenvironments.

Tick-Borne Diseases in Scotland

Ticks are infamous disease carriers, and in Scotland, they are responsible for transmitting several diseases that can affect humans and animals. Here are the primary ones:

Lyme Disease

The most common tick-borne disease in Scotland, Lyme disease, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Transmitted through the bite of infected Ixodes ricinus ticks, the symptoms include a red circular rash and flu-like symptoms, and if left untreated, more severe complications such as neurological and joint issues can arise.

Lyme disease can be complicated to treat once it has taken hold, so avoiding ticks and being aware of the early signs of Lyme disease are extremely important.

Red bulls eye rash after a tick bite. Tick borne infection.
If you notice a rash like this after being bitten by a tick, seek medical advice immediately.

Anaplasmosis

While less common than Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis is another significant disease transmitted by ticks. This bacterial illness can cause symptoms like fever, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. Animals, particularly dogs and horses, can also contract anaplasmosis.

Babesiosis

This is a malaria-like illness caused by a parasite that infects red blood cells. Ticks transmit the disease when they bite a host to feed. While rare, it can be a severe disease in people with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and persons without a spleen.

Tick-Borne Encephalitis (TBE)

TBE is a viral infectious disease involving the central nervous system. The disease most often manifests as meningitis, encephalitis, or meningoencephalitis. Long-lasting or permanent neuropsychiatric consequences are observed in 10 to 20% of infected patients. Although it's more common in mainland Europe, a few cases have been reported in the UK, highlighting the need for monitoring.

Statistics on the Prevalence of These Diseases

Lyme disease is by far the most commonly reported tick-borne disease in Scotland, with around 200 confirmed cases each year, although the actual number is likely much higher due to underreporting. Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, and TBE are far less common, but there's a need for continued surveillance due to the potential for these diseases to become more prevalent in the future.

A tick embedded in human skin. Avoid ticks! How common are tick bites?
An embedded tick should be removed immediately.

Prevention and Control Measures

Effective prevention and control measures are crucial, given the potential health risks posed by ticks. Here are some strategies that are currently in use in Scotland:

Personal Prevention Methods

This involves practices that individuals can adopt to reduce their risk of tick bites.

  1. Spray insect repellent: Using an insect repellent that contains DEET can help deter ticks.

  2. Protective clothing: Wearing long trousers and long-sleeved tops, preferably wear light-coloured clothing, so ticks are easier to spot, can help prevent tick bites. Most people get ticks on exposed skin on their legs.

  3. Avoidance of high-risk areas: Sticking to paths and avoiding long grass when walking in areas known for ticks can reduce the chance of encountering them.

Tick Checks and Proper Tick Removal

After spending time in areas known for ticks, individuals should check themselves, their children, and their pets for ticks. If a tick is found, it should be removed as soon as possible using fine-tipped tweezers or a specially designed tick removal tool.

Control Measures in Public Spaces

This might involve regular mowing of public parks and recreational areas to keep the grass short and discourage tick habitation. Signage may also be used in areas with high tick activity to remind people to check for ticks.

Tick Treatments for Pets

Pets, particularly dogs, can be treated with regular tick prevention treatments to kill any ticks that attach to them. This protects the pets themselves and reduces the chance of ticks being brought into homes.

While these strategies can be effective, they are not foolproof. Continued research into better methods of tick control and prevention, as well as public education about ticks and the diseases they carry, are crucial elements in managing the risks associated with ticks.

Tick removal tools

Here are a few of the best removal tools; it's worth taking one in your bag if you plan to hike around Scotland, particularly if you wear shorts and t-shirts. They can be purchased in pet shops or online; I've supplied a few links below.

Tick hook / tick twister

Tick twisters, also called tick hooks, are small plastic tools with a hooked end. It works by sliding the hooked end under the tick, catching it at the point where it's attached to the skin. The tool is then twisted or rotated to detach the tick without squeezing it, which reduces the risk of the tick regurgitating infectious material into the bite wound. Tick twisters often come in sets of two sizes to accommodate both small and large ticks.

Purchase a tick hook.

Tick Key

A tick key is a flat, key-like device designed to remove ticks. It has a V-shaped notch that you slide under the tick until it's held in the narrowest part of the notch. By applying gentle upward pressure, the tick is removed entirely. Like the tick twister, this method avoids compressing the tick's body.

Purchase a tick key.

Fine-Tipped Tweezers

While not specifically a tick removal tool, fine-tipped or pointy tweezers can be very effective. They can grasp the tick closer to the skin (preferably as close to the head as possible) compared to regular tweezers. The tick should be pulled upwards with steady, even pressure. The goal is to remove the tick intact without leaving any parts in the skin. I personally like this two-in-one tweezer product for removing ticks; if the worst happens and the tick is not entirely removed, you can use the tweezers to pick out the remaining parts.

How to use a tick hook:

  1. Choose the Right Tick Hook: Tick hooks often come in various sizes. Choose the one that best matches the size of the tick you want to remove. The hook should be able to slide easily under the tick without too much resistance.

  2. Position the Hook: Place the hook flat against the skin and approach the tick from the side (where its body meets its head). The tick should be between the prongs of the hook.

  3. Slide the Hook Underneath the Tick: Slide the hook along the skin under the tick, ensuring the tick is held in the slot of the hook, and the body of the tick is on top of the hook.

  4. Lift the Hook: Once the tick is secured, pull steadily with upward pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tool but instead, lift the hook steadily away from the skin. The tick should detach from the skin cleanly.

  5. Inspect the Tick and Bite Site: Look at the tick to make sure the head and mouthparts were removed. Check the bite site to ensure no parts of the tick are left behind. If parts remain, remove them with tweezers or consult a healthcare provider.

  6. Dispose of the Tick Safely: Don't crush the tick with your fingers. Place it in a sealed bag, wrap it tightly in tape, or flush it down the toilet. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling them. If you fear catching a disease, you could keep the tick to help identify the disease if you present with symptoms.

  7. Clean the Bite Area: Cleanse the bite site with soap and water, then apply an antiseptic to prevent infection.

Avoid using unconventional methods, such as applying a lit cigarette or match or using essential oils, to coax the tick into detaching itself. Similarly, avoid squeezing the tick, especially if it's engorged with blood, as it could lead to the tick's fluids being re-injected into your body. Such actions might irritate the tick and increase the risk of pathogen transmission.

Impact of Climate Change on Tick Season and Populations

Climate change is expected to significantly impact tick populations and activity patterns in Scotland. Warmer temperatures and humidity changes could extend the tick season and increase the geographical range of ticks. This could lead to an increase in the incidence of tick bites and tick-borne diseases. However, the exact impact of climate change on ticks is complex and depends on various factors, including changes in host animal populations and behaviour.

Tick on a leaf. Ticks and lyme disease.
Beware of ticks on foliage.

FAQs on ticks in Scotland

Here are a few frequently asked questions about ticks in Scotland:

Can ticks only be found in wild areas?

No, my wife received a tick bite in our garden. It's possible to get a tick bite anywhere in Scotland, from the forests, beaches, and hills to more urbanized areas.

Will I catch a disease from a tick bite?

It's possible but can be easily mitigated by keeping an eye open for ticks, removing them as soon as possible, and applying antiseptic cream. Bites from infected ticks will not always result in disease, but it's best to err on the side of caution.

What types of ticks are commonly found in Scotland?

Scotland's most common types of ticks are Ixodes ricinus (also known as the sheep tick or castor bean tick) and Ixodes hexagonus (the hedgehog tick). Both species are capable of transmitting diseases to humans and animals.

When are ticks most active in Scotland?

Ticks are most active during warmer months, typically from spring through autumn. However, mild winters can sometimes see continued tick activity.

What diseases can ticks transmit in Scotland?

Ticks in Scotland are known to transmit several diseases, including Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, and occasionally Tick-Borne Encephalitis (TBE).

How can I prevent tick bites?

Personal prevention methods include using a tick repellent containing DEET, wearing long and light-coloured clothing when in tick-infested areas, and avoiding tall grasses and bushy areas. After outdoor activities, check yourself, your children, and your pets for ticks and remove any ticks found as soon as possible.

What should I do if I find a tick on my body?

If you find a tick on your body, remove it as soon as possible. Use fine-tipped tweezers or a special tick removal tool to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid twisting or jerking the tick, which can cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin.

How does climate change affect ticks in Scotland?

Climate change, with warmer temperatures and humidity changes, could extend the tick season and increase the geographical range of ticks in Scotland. This could lead to an increase in tick-borne diseases.

How do ticks affect animals in Scotland?

Ticks can negatively impact various animals in Scotland, from wildlife to domestic pets and livestock. Animals such as deer, birds, and small mammals play a significant role in the tick lifecycle and disease transmission. Pets like dogs and cats can pick up ticks from the environment and become ill from tick-borne diseases. Livestock animals, like sheep, can also be affected, with ticks transmitting diseases such as Louping ill virus.

Tick removal from a cat. Common tick bites on pets.
A cat with a tick embedded within its fur.

Are there other biting insects in Scotland?

Yes, the most famous are midges and mosquitos. While midges are an itchy pest, they do not harbour the diseases that ticks do.

Ticks in Scotland video

Here is a great video with information on ticks, and a few top tips.

Conclusion

I hope this article on ticks has been helpful; being tick aware is very important in Scotland, but try not to worry too much - in all my adventures around Scotland, I have never been bitten by a tick. Purchase a removal tool and bring some antiseptic cream; you will be fine if you find a tick.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Comments:


Mags
14th of July 2023 @ 14:19:47

Good advice to avoid the beasties👍