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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • deer density;
  • geographical variation;
  • Ixodes ricinus;
  • population model;
  • tick;
  • tick control

Summary

1. A population model for the tick Ixodes ricinus, the most significant vector of pathogens in Europe, is used to explore the relative impact of changes in climate, host density and acaricide-treated hosts on tick abundance and seasonality.

2. A rise in temperature of the sort witnessed since 1989 speeds up the inter-stadial development of ticks, thereby reducing the cumulative effect of constant daily mortality rates and potentially raising population levels. The predicted earlier onset of tick-questing activity in the spring, due to stage-specific temperature thresholds, could increase contact between ticks and humans during recreational visits to the countryside in spring holidays. These tick population effects vary geographically with background climate.

3. The significant increase in deer abundance across Europe, including the UK, in recent decades is predicted to drive tick population increases, the effect varying with the initial density of hosts. In areas only recently colonized by deer, tick numbers are predicted to rise dramatically (given suitable climatic conditions). Where host densities are already high, however, further increases may reduce numbers of questing ticks; unfed ticks leave the questing population more rapidly, even though the overall tick population (and therefore pathogen transmission potential) increases.

4. Culling high-density deer populations as a control measure could, therefore, initially cause an apparent increase in questing ticks, with the predicted long-term population trajectory depending on the severity of the cull.

5. Conversely, the further addition of large hosts (e.g. sheep) would effectively reduce the number of questing ticks and therefore the risk to humans. If such sheep were treated with acaricide, tick populations are predicted to decrease rapidly, to an extent that depends on the relative abundance of wild (untreated) and treated hosts. Tick control in designated areas may be achieved by using sheep in this way as ‘lethal mops’, as used to occur in the past when sheep were regularly dipped.

6.Synthesis and applications. Both abiotic and biotic environmental changes witnessed recently could have contributed to apparent increases in tick populations, especially where these environmental factors were limiting in the past. The release of additional hosts treated with long-lasting acaricide is potentially an effective control strategy.