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Ticks & Tickborne Diseases

About Ticks & Tickborne Diseases

Recently ticks and the diseases they transmit have become of increasing public concern. While louping ill is the tick transmitted disease with the greatest economic impact, other infections spread by ticks can cause serious disease in animals as well as humans.

In addition to the common sheep tick other tick species may be found on domestic animals. These include Ixodes hexagonus which primarily parasitises hedgehogs and Ixodes canisuga which can infest dog kennels or can be picked up from fox dens. Both I. hexagonous and I. canisuga are of concern as they may be confused with I. ricinus.

The two other ticks, Haemaphysalis punctata (coastal red tick) and Dermacentor reticulatus (marsh tick) will use any host. They are found in southern England and Wales, mainly on sheep and cattle and are less associated with the transmission of any disease in the UK. As climate change could impact on the distribution and abundance of these ticks, it is essential that livestock owners are aware of the possibility that they may become more important in disease transmission and report the presence of ticks with an unusual appearance. If in doubt, ticks can be submitted to the Tick Surveillance Scheme (

In addition to the potential spread of louping ill, redwater fever and tickborne fever, heavy tick infestations in livestock can cause irritation, anaemia and loss of production. Tick infestations are of significant economic importance in hill sheep due to upland grazing being the preferred habitat of the sheep tick.

There is increasing awareness  of ticks, amidst reports of ticks spreading geographically and increasing in numbers. Factors which may contribute to this are:

  • Climate change in particular relatively wet summers and milder winters
  • Sheep farming economics and a reduction in sheep dipping in some areas
  • Environmental biodiversity management strategies in relation to habitat
  • The marked increase in deer numbers acting as tick maintenance hosts


Key Points

  • Ticks are blood sucking obligate (i.e. they require a host to survive) ectoparasites with at least 20 species indigenous to the UK, the majority only parasitising specific wildlife hosts.
  • Ticks are spreading geographically and increasing in numbers, most likely because of climate change.
  • Ticks are generally inactive in the winter and only start looking for a host when the mean weekly temperature exceeds 7oC, although some are increasingly becoming tolerant to low temperatures.
  • Ticks have up to a three year life cycle (sometimes can be longer) with each stage requiring only one blood meal (one host).
  • The three host life cycle of sheep ticks makes it possible for them to transmit diseases to their host during nymph and adult stages, or for some pathogens through eggs and larvae.
  • The most common tick in the British Isles is Ixodes ricinus, the sheep tick, which is the vector for: Louping ill, tickborne fever, babesiosis (redwater fever), tick pyaemia, Lyme Disease (Borrelia) and more recently tick-borne encephalitis (TBEV).
  • Ixodes ricinus can be infected and transmit more than one pathogen at the same time explaining the variations seen in clinical signs and response to treatment.
  • Louping ill most commonly affects sheep and red grouse, but can also affect cattle, horses, dogs and humans. The disease in sheep can be controlled by vaccination (if available) or mitigated by management practices in the absence of a vaccine.
  • Tickborne fever is prevalent where sheep and ticks are common and sheep should be exposed to ticks well in advance of  mating for the first time.
  • Tick pyaemia affects lambs (2–12 wks old) and causes significant economic loss through debilitation and death.
  • Lyme disease is a zoonotic disease which can be treated if diagnosed quickly. All farmers, gamekeepers and those who use the countryside for recreation should be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease and consult their doctor immediately if they are worried at all.
  • Redwater fever is a tickborne cattle disease common in the south of England, which is, however, spreading north. Characteristic dark-stained urine is a hallmark of the disease.
  • Tick control should be planned for individual farms as part of your flock health plans in consultation with your ve
  • Generally, for most sheep flocks in high risk areas, acaricides are the main form of control.

Research at Moredun

Research on Tickborne Diseases at Moredun is a recent development and is directed, in the first instance, to the development of a number of diagnostic tests to increase our disease-detecting capabilities.

Currently the Virus Surveillance Unit carry out serological (disease surveillance) and molecular (diagnostic) test for louping ill and TBF (molecular diagnosis only). Tests in development include a serological test for TBF, a molecular test for Lyme disease, and the possibility to test simultaneously for all three diseases in the same sample, enabling the identification of coinfections. More information on the tests and the samples required can be found on the Surveillance page.

In addition, we are developing protocols which will enable the same tests to be carried out directly on ticks which will complement the work on tick distribution and deer density in different ecosystems currently taking place at the James Hutton Institute (in collaboration with Prof. Lucy Gilbert).

In collaboration with Nottingham University (Prof. Janet Daly) we are looking at cutting edge molecular techniques to characterise the antibody response to the louping ill virus with the aim of identifying specific sequences which will be used to improve the tests currently performed.

In collaboration with Glasgow University (shared BBSRC PhD) we are looking at the genetic mechanisms which allow different members of the tick-borne encephalitis sub-group of the genus flavivirus to infect a variety of different hosts, and their species-specificity.

Research Funding

We are in receipt of Scottish Government funding (RDs 2.2.2 and 2.3.3 of the Strategic Research Programme) for the development of diagnostic tests and the collaborative work with the James Hutton Institute.

The collaboration with Glasgow University is a shared, BBSRC-funded PhD whereas the collaboration with Nottingham university is carried out through a Moredun/Nottingham shared PhD.

Further Information

The most common tick in the British Isles is Ixodes ricinus, the sheep tick, which is the vector for the following five diseases:

Louping ill

Louping ill is a tick transmitted acute viral disease affecting the central nervous system and principally found in sheep but also occasionally causes disease in humans, cattle, horses, goats, dogs, pigs, red grouse, llamas and alpacas.  Ticks become infected when they feed on a host which is undergoing an active infection with virus circulating in the blood (viremia).  The virus establishes in the salivary gland of the tick, where it can remain from one year to the next, and is injected into another host when the tick feeds again.

In areas where louping ill is present the mortality rate is 5-10% and occurs typically in animals less than 2 years old.  Initially animals develop fever accompanied by depression and lack of appetite.  Later, during the sub-acute phase of the disease, muscule tremors often develop; seizures, paralysis, coma and death can also occur.

Please see our louping ill best practice booklet for more information.

Tickborne fever (TBF)

Tickborne fever in sheep is caused by the bacteria Anaplasma phagocytophilum and the disease severely depresses the immune system, even if little or no symptoms are present during the initial infection.  It therefore leaves the animal predisposed to further secondary diseases.  For example tickborne fever in lambs can lead to a more severe manifestation of louping ill, tick pyaemia and respiratory disease. Abortions observed during outbreak of ticjborne fever are mainly related to high fever and can occur at any stage of pregnancy.

Tickborne fever is prevalent wherever ticks and sheep are present.  All ages of animal are susceptible and maternal antibody in colostrum provides no protection.  Clinical signs include: a sustained high temperature, loss of appetite and depression.

Cattle and deer rarely show clinical signs of disease but may act as reservoirs of infection.

Tick pyaemia

Tick pyaemia typically affects lambs between 2 and 12 weeks of age and results in the formation of abscesses in various parts of the body, mainly in the joints, tendon sheaths, and muscles.  These abscesses cause debilitating lameness and paralysis hence the common term “crippled lambs.” The disease is enzootic (permanently present) in many regions of the UK where the sheep tick is common.

Redwater fever (babesiosis)

Transmitted by the sheep tick, this cattle disease is caused by a protozoan parasite (Babesia divergens) that infects the red blood cells.  Though widely distributed where ticks and cattle are present, generally it is not a serious problem as cattle under nine months of age do not develop clinical disease following infection, and become solidly immune.

A resident herd of cattle will seldom experience disease problems and it is only when older susceptible animals are introduced to a tick infested area for the first time, or ticks encroach into new areas, that disease occurs.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is an important zoonotic disease of public health concern.  The disease is transmitted by the bite of a sheep tick infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi.  The disease can be found over most of the UK although it is more prevalent in areas with high tick populations such as the Scottish Highlands, Exmoor and the Yorkshire moors.

Further information from Lyme Disease Action

If you suspect Lyme disease, talk to your GP as soon as possible.  Additional information can be found on the NHS website.

Further information from UK Health Security Agency – Enjoy the outdoors but ‘be tick aware’

Our Experts

Mara Rocchi


Beth Wells


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