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Ben Dolphin: A Rum do – hippos, Eddie Stobart lorries and a magical protection from ticks

Tick (Acarina sp.) adult, feeding, on human skin
Tick (Acarina sp.) adult, feeding, on human skin

I can’t help having a grudging respect for ticks. For starters, they can inflate ten times their size simply by eating one meal. I know it can sometimes feel like we’ve bloated ten times over from spending a whole day at the Christmas dinner table, but if we experienced the same phenomenon we’d be the size of a hippo!

Ben Dolphin.

More impressively though, ticks have a supernatural ability to appear undetected from out of nowhere, days after your last walk in the outdoors. Just last week, immediately after a woodland stroll, I checked myself thoroughly and found nothing. I showered then checked again. Nothing. I put clean clothes on, later went to bed, checked again. Nothing. Then next morning I felt an itch on my wrist and, lo and behold, there one was, mocking me with its bum in the air.

They’re magicians, I tell you, and they’ve had plenty of time to hone their craft. Ticks have been found on dinosaur feathers encased in amber 99 million years ago, and doubtless they’ve learned a thing or two about stealth and successful parasitism in all that time.

But while I can respect them ecologically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m a fan. Yeah, I know everything has its place in the grand scheme of things, but I’d still rather ticks weren’t there, and I yearn for those strange distant days when I didn’t have to worry about them at all.

Pre-2008, ignorance really was bliss. Sure, I had a vague awareness of ticks’ existence and the unpleasant diseases they could carry, but as far as I was concerned they were an American thing. A European thing. I therefore had years of joyously care-free walking where ticks just didn’t feature, my ignorance apparently bestowing me with supernatural protection against being bitten.

But then I went on a study tour to Rum where, upon our arrival, our tutor gave us a grisly five minute talk about ticks and said that a bite was pretty much inevitable on the island. True enough, I quickly picked up my very first ever tick. I’d been expecting something the size of a money spider but this was miniscule, smaller than a poppy seed. But that was just Rum, right?

Nope. After that trip I encountered ticks everywhere. Not just in new places I visited, but more worryingly in familiar, favourite haunts like Glen Etive. I’d spent many a summer night camped by the River Etive and had never thought anything of it, but returning post-Rum I was open-mouthed at how ticky it was. Pre-Rum I’d lounged about on the grass. Post-Rum I was reluctant to even sit down! How could I not have noticed these things crawling everywhere!? Surely they were there before?

Deer numbers and milder winters aside, I suppose we all have a time where we go from being non-aware to hyper-aware, where the very act of acquiring knowledge of a thing inevitably results in you noticing it much more than you might otherwise have done. It’s the same phenomenon as when you open someone’s eyes to the existence of Eddie Stobart lorries.

Even so, it was like night and day. Pre Rum, I wasn’t bitten. Post Rum I was (and still am) bitten several times every year. I have of course wondered whether I was bitten pre-Rum and just not been aware of it, but I have never (knowingly) had a tick bite that didn’t itch like mad, even when the tick was attached for just a matter of minutes. I react badly, so I think it’s highly unlikely that a bite could have gone unnoticed. Yep, my tick-less life definitely ended the moment that someone explicitly told me about them.

And oddly, I know at least three other outdoorsy people who blame me for their tick bites for the same reason, saying they never had a problem with ticks until they met me and I subsequently gave them all the gory details. Is it possible? Had we all been under supernatural protection of some sort? Something that banished ticks from our worlds and kept us blissfully unaware and unaffected until someone broke the spell by telling us about them?

Nah, clearly not. For while there are undeniably some infuriatingly fortunate people out there whom ticks go out of their way to avoid, there are also plenty of cases of Lyme Disease where sufferers have no recollection of ever having been bitten. Yep, ignorance might be bliss, but it certainly isn’t protection.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland