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Devon under siege from rise of the toxic caterpillar

For most of the country the past few weeks of glorious sunshine have allowed us to shed our winter coats and savour an unseasonably early spring. Not so for the residents of Woodville Road, Exeter, where warm temperatures have led to an invasion of toxic caterpillars.

Locals have been advised to stay indoors and keep their windows shut following the early emergence of thousands of brown-tail moth caterpillars. The 5cm-long insects are covered in tiny hairs that break off in the wind and can cause allergic reactions, including rashes, itchiness and headaches.

Usually only found along the south-east coast, they have spread further north in recent years as Britain experiences higher annual temperatures.

Retired Marion McPherson, 74, said the entire street had been inundated with the creatures. "They're absolutely horrible little things," she said. "We had a few hundred last year and that was bad enough, but this time there are thousands. I've had a rash all up my arm and difficulty breathing. I'm absolutely terrified they'll get into the house, so we're keeping all the windows and doors closed."

During the winter, brown-tails build tent-like webs to hide from the cold weather and wait for spring. Woodville Road's infestation appears to be coming from a bank of trees by a disused railway line and nearby allotments.

Mike Evans, who lives beside the railway line, has been killing as many of the caterpillars as possible. "They are everywhere and are stopping me using my garden," the 49-year-old said. "The problem is the sheer number of them on the railway line – me killing a few doesn't make any difference."

Dave Richards, a licensed trade stocktaker, 59, also lives beside the railway line. He said the only solution was for foliage to be cut back and burnt.

A Network Rail spokesman said: "Our engineers have been to inspect the problem since it was brought to our attention. Plans are now under way to examine a suitable solution."

A council spokesman said the allotments were inspected in March, but there weren't any tents around then. He added that the council would be undertaking works to some trees on the allotment boundary this winter and advised anyone finding the caterpillars to refer to the council's website before attempting to deal with them.