Sheffield pensioner’s web of mystery

Jean Thompson, of Walkley, whose front garden hedge has been infested with web weaving caterpillars.
Jean Thompson, of Walkley, whose front garden hedge has been infested with web weaving caterpillars.
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A caterpillar catastrophe has struck in a Sheffield garden – leaving a pensioner’s hedge completely stripped bare by the creepy-crawlies.

Eighty-year-old Joan Thompson was amazed to see her 8ft-long hedge covered by a dense carpet of silken webs.

spider webs in walkley

spider webs in walkley

Underneath, the foliage had been eaten away entirely, leaving Joan to puzzle just exactly what was to blame.

Passers-by near her home on Walkley Street, Walkley, have been amazed by the sight, many capturing the scene on their camera phones.

“The webs are just massive and they appeared so quickly, over two or three days,” Joan said. “All I could see inside was just one small black and white caterpillar, while further along were two little brown spiders.

“Everyone’s been amazed and some people think it looks scary, but I think it’s really quite beautiful to look at.

Jean Thompson's front garden hedge, which has been infested with web weaving caterpillars.

Jean Thompson's front garden hedge, which has been infested with web weaving caterpillars.

“I’ve never seen anything like it but I’ve always been fascinated by nature, and my son owns a reptile shop.”

Joan said she was a regular observer of wildlife in her garden – but more common sights were squirrels, magpies and crows.

“I’m really curious to find out what caused such a thing,” she added.

So The Star contacted Sheffield Hallam University’s Professor Ian Rotherham, who confirmed caterpillars were indeed to blame.

“The species in question is the buff ermine moth - spilosoma luteum. The moths fly during August and lay their eggs, hatching into caterpillars,” he said.

“Ermine moth caterpillars then protect themselves and their food from predators and parasites by living beneath silk webbing.

“They breed on various shrubs, usually blackthorn and hawthorn – so they do well on ornamental shrubberry. The gregarious caterpillars gorge on infested areas, stripping whole bushes, sometimes covering many square metres of foliage.

“They eat a lot and they grow fast.”

But Dr Rotherham stressed the caterpillars were harmless and their outbreaks were seasonal one-offs.

“The caterpillars use up their food supply and have to move on,” he said.

n The ‘boom and bust’ 
caterpillars – see Wildside: Page 21