Our Bushland Diary

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the bane of bushwalkers

It's a couple of months since I've been for a walk in our local bushland.  Yet, I don't feel compelled to visit my favourite places for a few more weeks.  It's not the heat - that can be largely avoided by walking early in the morning or just on dusk.  

The problem is that I'm a "tick magnet".  Walking, for me, is an off-the-beaten-track exercise, and this puts me into contact at this time of the year with, literally, thousands of tiny invertebrates that want to suck my blood.  Little vampires, in effect.  At the end of each bushwalk, I need to decontaminate my clothes and body of these freeloaders, before I end up with scores of unbearably itchy and weeping sores.

Read on if you dare!

Most people will be familiar with ticks, but there are so many myths and inconsistencies in what people think about them.  

For a start, lets look at "pepperticks".  Pepperticks appear in the hot months of the year, around the south west, and get their name from their appearance; a sprinkling of pepper.  They usually travel in swarming herds, or whatever a large number of ticks is called.  They are difficult to spot on clothing, and unlikely to be felt travelling across one's naked skin, due to their miniscule size.  They have six legs; when they have eaten a "blood meal", they can grow, and moult their skin to grow some more.
pepperticks - on cotton drill
These ticks are actually baby versions of the well-known "kangaroo tick" (Amblyomma triguttatum) of Western Australia.  The adult tick has eight legs, and looks superficially like a spider.  These ticks normally dine on the blood of kangaroos, hence the name.  Unfortunately, some bushwalkers smell sufficiently like kangaroos to confuse the poor hungry little things!  (Ok, I'm just being sarcastic now.)  But it does seem that, like mosquitoes, ticks will target some unlucky human individuals while ignoring others.  It's also possible that ticks avoid people who use insect repellent.
kangaroo tick, coming to get you
Kangaroo ticks seem to reach their adult size around the end of the year, just in time to lay eggs and start hatching out pepperticks for summer and autumn.  The adults are reddish-brown with yellow joints, and some have yellow marks on the back.  In winter, ticks are sluggish and not as prevalent, which is another reason for bushwalkers like me to enjoy being out in the cold.

Ticks, mites and spiders are in a class of animals called Arachnids, but whereas spiders are in a group called Araneae, ticks and mites belong to the group called Acarina.   

Each species of tick has a specific host, such as kangaroos, or in some countries, deer or cattle.  There are even species that live solely on birds, or on reptiles such as bobtails. (By the way, bobtail ticks aren't interested in people.)

Ticks have very sharp mouthparts, perfect for drilling through skin into blood capillaries lying just under the surface.  They inject a fluid to prevent coagulation.  Some species of tick carry diseases which can infect people, pets and farm animals.  For example, in the USA, "lyme disease" is spread by a tick that has a deer as host, but can bite humans.  Along the east coast of Australia, there is a species known as the "paralysis tick" (Ixodes holocyclus), which can cause paralysis and death in small mammals such as dogs and children.  Fortunately, we don't have that tick or its disease in Western Australia. 

Ticks do not "jump" down from overhanging branches.  At best, they can climb up to your head and drop down from there, which may give that impression.  Ticks do clamber around on the ground, and they do climb up low vegetation.  I recently found some dead branches sticking up about 10cm above ground level, swarming with pepperticks.  Then I noticed that about two hundred of the ticks had climbed onto the lower legs of my trousers, when I'd brushed against the branches.
time to grab a scrubbing brush or a handful of dirt
There are many ways of removing ticks once they have started feeding, but I haven't found any method to be 100% effective in all cases.  Some of the more "scientific" approaches include twisting the tick out, using tweezers.  I have tried this and it sometimes works.  

Small ticks can be picked off with fingernails.  Big ticks are problematic, especially if they have been feeding for a few hours before being discovered, and have their head burrowed into your body.   Things I would definitely not recommend are burning the tick out with a lighted match or cigarette lighter, or using toxic solvents such as kerosene - these could cause you serious injury.  (Where do people get such crazy remedies?) 

Perhaps it would be better to treat the tick as you would a splinter, and use a sharp needle to dig the mouthparts out, then clean the small wound with salty water or some antiseptic wash.  I have had to resort to this method on occasion. 

There are also lots of home remedies for tick bite, but I have tried most of them and found them lacking in desired outcomes.  I have noticed that having a hot shower aggravates the sores, and when I have a fresh bite, all the previous unhealed sores will start itching - an interesting physiological effect, but quite unpleasant.  I have tried putting on dabs of various creams on fresh bites, and slapping a sticky bandage on them to stop me scratching them, but most of my scratching is done when I'm asleep...so that doesn't work as well as it should.

Worried about ticks on your pets?  Read this brochure from the Dept of Agriculture and Food
And please leave your dog at home when you go bushwalking.

Anyway, another month or so and the horror (!) of peppertick season will be gone, and I can look forward to heading out bush again.

P.S. I am not responsible for any injury or damage caused by following any procedure outlined in this blog.  Your safety and health are your responsibility.


  1. Hello Linda - thanks for this post. Aside from long pants tucked into socks, are there other ways to stop pepper ticks from attaching themselves to skin? I picked up my first, and hopefully last, pepper tick while in Lancelin recently and was wondering if regular insect repellant or something else might cause them to drop off? Thanks

  2. you better update your info
    proof of borrelia in australai and many other organisms in ticks
    people arw crippled and dying

    see late weeks senate enquiry hansard document

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience with the kangaroo tick. I've been bushwalking forever and haven't had a problem until a recent trip to Preston camp ground.. what a way to ruin a camping trip! Got some terrible lumps in my hair and itching all over from where I've been bitten. I see on many maps showing tick locations that they simply don't exist on the southern half of WA! :-)