We were walking along the gravel path when we encountered the hairy caterpillar. At first I thought it was warming itself in the September sun but on closer inspection it had its ‘inners’ spilling out of one of its body. A sad hairy caterpillar.
Perhaps it had been accidental trodden on by a walker or run over by a cyclist. I bent down to take a picture of it when I heard a voice behind me…
‘It is a caterpillar, isn’t it?”
I turned to see an old man with no teeth looking at us in anticipation of our answer.
‘I thought as much. That’s why I hit it with my walking stick. Well it’s a dead caterpillar now isn’t it and it can’t harm anyone can it?’
We were both slightly bemused by this old man’s retort.
‘Them hairy caterpillars – there dangerous aren’t they’ he continued.
All I could do was shrug and walk away resigned to this man’s conviction that he had just done some good.It was done without causing offense and the man went on his way too.
We both walked for a couple of metres and returned to look at the caterpillar. Even if the victim was in fact a brown-tail moth caterpillar (Euproctis chrysorrhoea), what harm could it possible do to anyone here in the Wat Tyler Country Park? Brown-tails can cause serious problems when handled – granted – but a single one in the middle of nowhere? And was it in fact a brown-tail?
When I was a feral child in the countryside of Gloucestershire and Kent I was clearly made aware that I should not touch any hairy caterpillar This was a wise order from my parents as I was prone to investigate anything moving, flying or crawling wherever I was. I bit of research on the subject of hairy caterpillars notes that there were ‘plagues’ of hairy caterpillars in 2009 in the London area. These plagues had to be eliminated as the numbers did pose a risk to health. But the fear that this can put into people’s minds can mean anything that crawls and is hairy is a public danger.
I think the caterpillar in question was actually a Garden Tiger (Arctia caja) and harmless. And it came to untimely death on a path in Essex. I don’t blame the man but blame the press,who can dramatise events to such a degree that people just see danger. They do not step back and consider – what is this and is it really harmful?
A bit like Ragwort …but that’s another story.