PEOPLE are being urged to stay away from toxic caterpillars that have been spotted in the New Forest.

There have been more reports of the brown-tail moth caterpillar than usual this year, according to the district council.

The creatures, which have brown spiky hairs with a distinctive white line down each side and are up to 38mm long, can cause skin and eye irritation and breathing difficulties, particularly in children and in those with existing conditions such as asthma.

“You should avoid handling or brushing past brown-tail moth caterpillars as they are likely to cause irritating skin rashes similar to a severe nettle rash, which will last for a few hours,” the council said.

“In addition, because the caterpillars’ hairs can become airborne, some people may experience symptoms affecting their eyes and breathing, similar to hay fever. The hairs may also worsen symptoms of asthma for some sufferers.”

Residents and visitors who come into contact with the insects are advised to wash any irritated skin with water and apply calamine lotion on the skin which may ease itching. If serious breathing difficulties occur, people should seek medical advice.

The caterpillars become active in the spring, creating ‘tents’ in hedges and bushes. They begin to emerge from their tents in April and start to spread out into and feed on the surrounding foliage. After spinning a cocoon, the adult moths emerge in July and August, ready to mate.

“NFDC takes measures to help reduce the number of these caterpillars on land we own, for example along some coastal paths. If landowners or householders find an infestation on their land they should contact a pest control contractor,” the council said.