We have had an amazing tick season here. Since early spring we have had huge numbers of deer ticks in our fields and woods. We thought that the onset of freezing temperatures might slow them down, but morning after morning in the 20s have made no reduction. If anything, they are starting to panic at the thought of cold weather, and are out in force seeking that last meal before winter. The other day I took the herd of young goats for a little walk across their pasture and into the brushy borders beyond. Wow. I had to take thirty or more ticks off my clothing. I did get them all, since none were there during my tick check in the evening. A very creepy experience.
So I thought I might do the world at large a service by describing how to be safe in such an environment. Deer ticks, of course, are the carriers of Lyme disease. They are new to our area of upstate New York, a lovely product of global climate change. Probably they are worse because of the incredible 50-90% loss of many species of our small ground-feeding birds. A sad thing for many reasons, and also sad because of increasing numbers of ticks. Ticks look so resolute and they climb so speedily up your pants and shirt. But they mostly appear on the front of your clothing, so actually if you are ready, it is pretty easy to detect them and do them in. Deer ticks are about 1/16th of an inch in diameter, black and red, with eight black, speedy legs. The older ticks may be a little bigger, still black and red. Dog ticks and wood ticks are larger still, and very easy to see, but don’t carry Lyme disease.
So, here’s the scoop: First, be aware that you are going into an area where ticks might be. Brush, woods, even lawns can be great habitat. Wear light-colored clothing with a firm surface — no sweaters or knits as outside clothing. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pant-legs into your socks. That way, when the tick starts to climb up, it will stay visible on your outer clothing and won’t have access to your skin. Take a small screw-top jar with an inch of rubbing alcohol in it. When you get out there, keep checking the front of your pants and shirt. When you see the horrid little bugs, pinch them tightly between the tip of your thumb and your first finger, drop them into the jar, and screw on the lid. Check yourself carefully every 50 yards or so, if you are walking through brush. If you have forgotten your jar, it takes a lot longer to crush each one between your two thumb-nails, but it is necessary lest they get their hooks on you. Just remember to bring your jar and it goes a lot quicker.
The final step is really important — in the evening before bed, go in a well-lit room and take off all your clothes. Carefully examine all your clothing, inside and out, to be sure you did kill every single tick. Then carefully look at your skin, every square inch, especially in any creases or folds. If you walk enough, you don’t have a lot of creases and folds! But you still have to check very thoroughly, to be sure you didn’t miss one. Have someone check the back of your neck and behind your ears, or use a hand mirror to be sure there are no ticks hanging on back there. They don’t generally penetrate deeply into your hair, so if your hair is thick, you just have to check the hairline all the way around. If you have thin hair or no hair, check the whole scalp.
A very positive thing to know is that if you follow the same trail each day for your walk, soon you will have swept up all the ticks and you won’t have to pick them off very often. We used to send our dogs on ahead and they would sweep the area, but they have both passed away in their old age, so we can’t do that any more.
There you have it. How to stay safe in tick country. Don’t let the little bugs keep you from walking in the woods! But keep yourself safe! And soon it will be winter and they will all be under the snow. Hurray!