Outdoors: Beware the bracken fronds

Avoid ferny ground this summer: the plants harbour ticks carrying a debilitating disease. By Malcolm Smith

WHAT COULD be healthier? A summer walk across some of Britain's finest hills and moors, fresh air, and the pungent, earthy aroma of bracken as you crush it underfoot. The answer, it seems, is the very same walk, but avoiding as much of the bracken as possible.

For bracken is the ideal plant to harbour ticks - tiny, blood-sucking parasites - which can carry bacteria that cause Lyme disease, a debilitating condition not unlike arthritis.

In extreme cases, the disease can be fatal. More worrying still, its incidence is increasing and it is almost certain to increase further as climate change brings generally warmer, and sometimes wetter, weather, just what the ticks thrive on in their bracken hideaways.

At the same time, the area of land covered by bracken, a toughie of a fern that has already spread over 2.5 million acres of Britain, is expanding - especially in our national parks and other hill areas popular with walkers.

Named after Old Lyme in Connecticut, where the disease was first diagnosed in the Seventies, Lyme disease affects some domestic and wild animals as well as man, but is carried by others, seemingly without causing them ill health. The first sign is a granular-looking rash in the vicinity if the bite - though what makes diagnosis problematic is that around four in every 10 people infected get no such reddening. The bacteria go on to cause a general flu-like feeling with loss of appetite and insomnia. If not treated at this stage, the disease becomes chronic. The nervous system and joints suffer, particularly the larger ones - hence the severe arthritis that can be so debilitating. Yet treatment with antibiotics early on can stop Lyme disease in its tracks.

Roy Brown, professor of countryside management at Manchester Metropolitan University, who is an expert on bracken and its problems, has followed the growing incidence of the disease. In some parts of the North York Moors he recorded nine ticks per square metre of vegetation in 1979 (when he first began his records; this number has risen consistently over the intervening years, to reach 33 last year. He has recorded a similar pattern in the Quantocks and elsewhere.

"Numbers are looking very high this summer, particularly now, which is their peak time, because the weather has been ideal. Only a few hundred cases of Lyme disease are recorded in Britain each year but many more go unrecorded. It often isn't diagnosed. In the United States, where it is now second to HIV as the most widely reported persistent infection, there were 12,000 new cases last year. In Croatia, where it has really taken off, I know that there were perhaps 20 cases annually 15 years ago. Last year 1,800 were reported there.

"Because bracken is spreading and our climate warming, it is certain to continue to increase here, too."

Bracken is an excellent tick habitat. To survive all stages in their life cycle, these little suckers need high humidity and protection from extremes of temperature - drying out, especially - something that growing bracken can provide par excellence in spring and summer. In winter, the rusty brown, dead growth is equally protective. But bracken is also perfect as a launching-pad for hungry ticks. They can climb up the fronds and simply wait until a human being, dog or another animal brushes past. Bare skin is ideal. And while legs are particularly vulnerable, don't forget that bracken it can grow to 6ft in height; it can easily be chest high.

One of the world's most successful plants, bracken grows on every continent except Antarctica. "In Britain," says Professor Brown, "it's particularly bad in eastern Scotland, Cumbria, the North York Moors, much of Wales and the south west of England. It's spreading on to many roadside verges and in the uplands by as much as 3 per cent in area each year."

Once bracken is established it is difficult to eradicate, because it grows from a dense mass of underground rhizomes.

Over most of Britain, there are now no grants available to eradicate it. Farmers are reluctant to cut it because of the enormous labour involved. Machine cutting may be out of the question, since it often grows on uneven ground. Spraying with a bracken-specific herbicide is expensive, because it usually has to be done by helicopter, and may also run the unacceptable risk of contaminating water supplies.

Longer frost-free periods, more summer sun to provide warm growing conditions, and a damper climate, are just what bracken needs. So, too, do the ticks that spread Lyme disease. In spite of the obvious discomfort on a long, hot walk, the best advice is to wrap up well.

Do's And Don'ts

Do: wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers; wear brightly coloured clothes so that the ticks are visible; tuck trousers into boots or socks; check for ticks on your clothing and body after a walk; remove any with sharp-pointed tweezers using a twisting action (if the mouthparts of the tick break off under the skin, consult your GP immediately); spray dogs with insect-repellent powder

Don't: wear shorts, skirts or rolled up sleeves; burst blood-engorged ticks or squash them with your fingers; ignore any localised rashes around the bite (seek medical attention)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own