Al Gabriel suspects that incidents of Lyme disease may be much higher in our community than reported, and he thinks we all have a role to play in reducing it
MY trip to the Game Fair, an event usually re-served for friends old and new serendipitously turned out to be educational. The Game Fair is filled with experts in all manners of subjects, and I was lucky enough to hear a specialist in outdoor tick-proof clothing talk at the Game Fair theatre about the dangers posed by ticks.
Before we go any further, let us establish that ticks are parasitic arachnids and not insects; Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium not a virus; and ticks don’t have heads but a mouthpiece. And the nervous system is located elsewhere… But enough
with anatomical jargon.
My first enlightenment came when discovering that ticks have a sensory organ called a Haller’s or-gan (not found in any other animal) located on the first set of legs. We are all too familiar with that clingy body posture they adopt whilst they swing
on top of tall grass. They don’t do this to latch onto anything that moves but to meticulously sense and ambush their prey. How this sophisticated apparatus works is still unknown to science. But what really sent shivers down my spine was the fact that even after the mouthpiece burrows into your skin, the Haller’s organ is neatly folded backwards and remains on the outside of the body,
meaning the sensory organ is adept at figuring out any dangers while the mouthpiece is inside the host. Best not to interfere with its backside, which is essentially keeping an eye out.
The biggest danger with ticks is, of course, that as soon as the deer is down, the tick is already searching for an alternative host, which is usually the dog or the stalker. Even the way carcasses are transported following a cull is key. Throwing car-casses into vehicles where dogs might share the same space, and often in open cabin vehicles, is not an intelligent thing to do. There is also a significant
risk to family members who use the vehicle. The risk extends further to the domestic larder areas, where ticks are still looking for hosts. Summer months are the most dangerous time of year for tick bites, although that is gradually changing with global warming.
Although the industry has become more aware of the impact of Lyme and other diseases carried by ticks, in the past we were rather blasé in our approach to tick-borne diseases. Now, prominent members of our stalking fraternity have openly discussed the impact Lyme has had on their lives and some of the effects they still endure. At the Game Fair, I was particularly moved by a man who suffers
from Lyme disease who shared his experience with the audience as a cautionary tale. Thankfully, the stalking industry has come a long way in terms of kits and products to prevent tick bites. The impact of the disease is rather horrifying. It doesn’t just stop at migraines, headaches, or joint pains. Mental health issues associated with the disease such as depression, often linked to loss of livelihood and the ability to support families financially, are equally severe. So why aren’t we taking this more seriously? Do we know how many of our
fellow stalkers suffer with this in silence?
The Health & Safety Executive estimates that about 900 cases are reported in the UK annually, but actual cases might be close to 3,000. I think the incidence in our stalking community is much higher than people think. How to establish the ex-act number is far more complicated, but perhaps a simple survey by fieldsports organisations might shed some light.
I remember the first time I had a tick on me after processing a carcass. Afterwards I was having
a chat with my GP, who I am certain was googling Lyme disease as I was describing my worries. GPs in affected areas seem to be more experienced in treating Lyme disease. Lyme infection is curable with standard antibiotics but Lyme disease that goes undetected for a long time can be hard to diagnose and—worse still—nearly impossible to treat. Flare-ups can incapacitate a person for
weeks and months. To this day there are no effective vaccines available in the UK, although some therapies have been developed.
Why has Lyme disease become rife of late? That is a very complicated question, but it has to do with increasing deer numbers, changing climate and increased foot traffic in the countryside following Covid-19. I recently stopped taking my dog to one of my upland grounds because of ticks. I have had visitors who discovered dozens of ticks on their dogs. With all the knowledge and facts out there, it still amazes me that not many people carry tick removal kits, tick sprays, or wear appropriate
clothing, particularly in the summer months.
To my knowledge there are no specific training courses on ticks for deer stalkers. I think there is room for the industry to do more. I would go so far as to suggest a tailored course on ticks and practical means of preventing tick bites for deerstalkers.
My personal view is that one of the biggest challenges for the stalking industry is the number of stalkers that are going to experience Lyme in the future. I do not believe that we fully appreciate the impact it will have on people’s lives.
We need to raise more awareness, particularly for youngsters starting stalking from an earlier age. Some organisations are better than others, but a concerted effort might take us that bit further. It makes absolute sense to me that newcomers should get into the habit and routine of protecting themselves from this devastating disease.
We also need to be able to talk about our experiences of the disease, including any near misses we may have had. It is easy to stay quiet about acquiring Lyme disease from fellow stalkers. While I fully appreciate it is an individual choice, the overall outcome from sharing and educating would have a positive impact.