In addition to global warming, which is often blamed for the northward spread of Lyme disease, forest fragmentation could be another major cause of the high tick count.
Of Ticks and Forests
First of all, ticks proliferate in forest edges. This environment, often composed of tall grasses and shrubs, provides a habitat for host animals, but it is also an environment that remains moist and prevents ticks from drying out and dying. A forest that is cut up by roads and inhabited areas will necessarily have more of these transition zones. This is why it is recommended to create a buffer zone from those transition zones, consisting of wood mulch or gravel at least 1 meter (3 feet) in width. Since ticks are sensitive to drought, these barriers could prevent them from migrating to the rest of your property.
More studies are needed to confirm the usefulness of this type of barrier. The material used could have an influence on the presence of ticks. Certain types of wood may be more effective than others as mulch. It is also possible that these barriers lose their effectiveness over time.
Forest fragmentation causes an increase in the deer population, on which ticks breed, by reducing the population of their predators, but also by creating food sources for them. But beware! It would appear that reducing the deer population may increase the tick population in some cases, or reduce it in others. Hunting and fencing are not necessarily the right solution to the problem.
And we mustn’t forget that by developing wooded areas for human habitation, we have unwittingly placed ourselves in areas where ticks proliferate.
The debate is still raging between the advocates of the perfect lawn and those of ecological grass. As mentioned above in Ticks in the Garden: Some Nuances, Part 1, it’s often recommended to keep your lawn short to protect against ticks, which gives short lawn enthusiasts something to cheer about. But what does short lawn mean? There doesn’t seem to be any data on the subject. Only one study compared a lawn kept at three levels of height, the highest being 15 cm (6 inches), without finding any difference in the tick population. So there’s no need to mow every week!
Tall grasses are often accused of being habitats for ticks carrying Lyme disease. What has been reported is that tall grasses bordering wooded areas would be haunts for ticks and mice carrying Lyme disease. However, what has been overlooked is that ornamental gardens of perennials and shrubs, lawns, ground cover or other types of plantings, when in close proximity to these same wooded areas, are all likely to contain ticks. This is why we recommend creating a barrier between the forest and our garden or outdoor living spaces.
If you have a meadow at the back of your property, you can install a barrier, such as a path, between it and the rest of the property. You can also mow shorter around this path to avoid coming into contact with the vegetation.
By the way, what do we mean by tall grass? In my opinion, these are areas where grasses or other plants, preferably native, are intentionally installed or seeded. For some, it’s a matter of abandoning a lawn and letting anything grow on it: a mixture of native, non-native, cultivated plants and sometimes even harmful invasive species. Tall grasses, meadows or prairies, like any garden, require a minimum of supervision and preparation.
The same applies to dead leaves, which are also accused of harboring ticks that need high humidity to survive. Once again, leaving leaves on the ground near wooded areas creates a favorable environment for ticks. To avoid this problem, we suggest you avoid putting dead leaves on the edge of the forest. It’s better either to put them further into the woods, or to store or compost them neatly away from the forest. As a last resort, bag them for your municipality’s green waste collection. Shredding or mowing will cause leaves to decompose quickly, solving the problem. In any case, it’s best for the health of your lawn to remove accumulated organic residues before winter sets in.
Trash and Stone Walls
A study carried out in 2019 tested the effectiveness of several landscape management methods, including regular mowing, barriers and fencing, on the presence of tick larvae. It would appear that none of these methods has a significant influence. But there were two elements that seemed to increase the prevalence of ticks on a property: trash and stone walls. Why would this be? Because they can serve as habitats for small rodents, such as the white-footed mouse, which would hide under garbage and in the gaps between the stones of a wall. Sealing these gaps in the walls with mortar and keeping your property tidy would therefore be solutions worth considering.
Lyme Disease in Your Region
I recommend checking with your municipality or province to find out what the situation is in your area, as there is a great deal of variability in the presence of Lyme disease, even between neighboring villages.
Much research remains to be done in this field, and it is unlikely that there will be a simple solution to the problem of Lyme disease transmission, or a cure in the short term. To reduce human exposure to this disease, the scientific community and various levels of government will need to work together with the public to establish integrated management plans for green spaces, rodent treatment and ecosystem restoration projects.
Some Preventive Measures
For now, the best way to guard against ticks and Lyme disease is to practice these few preventive measures:
-Apply an insect repellent such as DEET, permethrin or picaridin to the skin when gardening.
-Wear protective clothing: long sleeves, long pants, shoes and socks, maybe even a mosquito net for the head and neck if the situation is really severe in your area.
-Spray permethrin on your clothes too. It has the unusual characteristic of sticking to the fabric, even after several washes, so the effect can last for two or three months.
-Wear light colors (so you can see the ticks before they bite).
-Tuck the bottom of your pants into your socks.
-Use long-sleeved gardening gloves when trimming.
-Wash your clothes immediately once you’re home. They’ll survive a washing machine, but not a high-temperature dryer.
-Also keep an eye out for ticks on your pets.