Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Thursday, 17 May 2007 15:06 UK

Natural invasion causes health problems

By Danny Savage
BBC News

The caterpillars can cause rashes and breathing problems
Spurn Point is a long spit of land which stretches like a crooked finger out into the North Sea to form the tip of the north coast of the Humber Estuary.

It is a place where nature and man live cheek by jowl. This thin strip of land - surrounded on three sides by water - is famous for its natural attractions.

Many who visit here come to see the birds. There is an observatory run by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust which has recorded some spectacular sightings especially during the spring and autumn migrations.

The beginning of this week was especially busy for arrivals with 144 Wheatears, 133 Willow Warblers , Turtle Doves and a Nightingale all turning up within a 24 hour period.

But another of nature's arrivals is causing the small population who live here increasing misery. They can be found in the bushes slowly munching their way through the vegetation and at first sight don't look too threatening.

Each of them is an inch long with brown hairs and red spots. They are caterpillars, or more specifically the larvae of the Brown Tailed Moth.

'Eating everything'

Caterpillar and lifeboat
Spurn Point is home to Britain's only full-time lifeboat station

They started appearing a few weeks ago and have literally got under the skin of men who are not the type to complain.

The end of Spurn Point is home to Britain's only full-time lifeboat station. Seven men and their families live out here at the RNLI's busiest outpost. The crew is prepared to launch in all weathers.

They are familiar with battling with nature and are used to winning. But at present putting to sea brings blessed relief to the afflicted.

It's actually becoming a really difficult problem, it looks like we've all got chicken-pox
Dave Steenvorden
The problem is the caterpillars have poisonous barbs which are causing rashes, skin irritation, headaches and breathing difficulties to the people who live here.

They don't affect everyone but several of the community are suffering from coming into contact with the hairs which blow in the wind.

"They're actually eating everything", says lifeboat coxswain Dave Steenvorden.

"It's actually becoming a really difficult problem, it looks like we've all got chicken-pox".

Dave's wife has contracted an eye infection from the problem.

Colleague Steve Purvis is also affected. "I've got a bad rash on my arms; it's really red and blotchy and has spread all over my body. It's difficult to sleep at night".

Twenty-eight people live here including several children. One mother, Steph Fisk says, "It's worse for the children who pick them up and don't realise what they're going to get". It's not just Spurn point which is affected.

Health warnings

On the opposite bank of the estuary, North East Lincolnshire Council is also trying to deal with problems caused by the caterpillars.

They are urging people not to touch the creatures and have issued health advice to anyone who does come into contact with them.

The caterpillars are a rare visitor from southern England and have no natural predator. It's thought they will be a continuing problem until later in the summer when they are expected to spend four weeks cocooned before they turn into moths. But this is likely to mean a breeding population will become established.

The explosion in caterpillar numbers is being attributed to last month's warm weather. Their breeding cycle includes the construction of white "tents" where the caterpillars spend the winter.

Destroying these is regarded as the most effective way of controlling the population. But it is unclear whether doing this will be allowed on the nature reserve of Spurn Point.

Yesterday the Pride of the Humber crew spent the day at sea testing some new equipment well away from their furry foes.

Today they will be back fidgeting and scratching on land and will perhaps not be too disappointed if they are called out.

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