Safe in your own yard – strategies for reducing your exposure to ticks

Robyn Bryant, special collaborator

Every spring, we are reminded to protect ourselves from the black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease whenever we venture into the woods. And yet those of us who have been bitten by a tick in TBL will likely tell you that it happened in our own yards – gardening, moving firewood, or playing in the leaves.

In Canada, where Lyme disease arrived relatively recently, prevention efforts have focused on the risk in parks and on hiking trails. We hear little about the ticks closer to home.

It’s a different story in the US, where Lyme disease has been a problem for decades. In Connecticut, where Lyme was first identified and where housing is interspersed with woods much like in TBL, the health department advocates a variety of prevention measures that include creating backyard recreational zones that are less hospitable to ticks.

Where to expect ticks

The ticks that transmit tick-borne infections live in moist and humid environments. This includes the leaf litter in forests, but also shady perennial beds, stone walls, and the brushy edges of lawns adjacent to woods.

Ticks don’t hop or fly, they mostly lie in wait for a warm-blooded host to brush against them. They dry out and die on short-cut lawn, gravel, wood chips, and hard surfaces like flagstone. This means your risk of being bitten are minimal when you’re sitting on your deck. But yard activities that put you in contact with leaves and bushes, especially in damp shady areas, call for vigilance (shower- ing and tick inspections).

How ticks reach your yard

Aside from humidity, ticks need animal hosts to provide them blood meals. Immature ticks feed on birds and small mammals including chipmunks and especially white-footed mice. Adult ticks tend to feed on larger animals such as deer, raccoons and squirrels.

All these animals can transport ticks into your yard, but you can reduce your risk by keeping your property clear of the food sources that attract them.

Create a tick-free zone through landscaping – tips from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control

Clear tall grasses and brush around homes and at lawn edges.
Place a 1-metre wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas and around patios and play equipment.
Mow the lawn frequently and keep leaves raked.
Place playground equipment and patios away from yard edges in a sunny location.

Animal and bird management – strategies from the Connecticut Tick Management Handbook

Deter deer with fencing or deer-resistant plants.
Keep potential mouse nesting sites in stonewalls and woodpiles near the house free of brush, high grass, weeds, and leaf litter.
Stack wood neatly and in a dry area away from the house.
Place bird-feeders away from the house and gardens in a sunny area of lawn. Clean up spilled bird feed (mice and raccoons visit at night). 

Birds don’t carry immature ticks in winter, so consider setting up feeders only in late fall and winter when natural foods are scarce.