Pine forests in Cyprus have been severely affected by the pine processionary caterpillar this year, with large swathes of forested land in the mountains looking like they have been hit by a fire, the Cyprus Mail learned on Monday.

The pine processionary is a pest in coniferous forests in southern Europe, where the caterpillar is responsible for most of the defoliation seen in coniferous trees.

Although pines are the most susceptible, other conifer trees such as larches are also vulnerable. The caterpillars can completely defoliate trees if large numbers are present.

Aside from destroying the trees, the pine processionary can also cause eye and skin irritation, as well as allergic reactions, while in their development.

Speaking to the Cyprus Mail, the mukhtar of Fikardou, Christos Tyrimos said that areas of the forest “look like they were burned in a fire.”

The caterpillar, although considered a nuisance, eats the pine needles, leaving the tree bare, but not dead.

Commenting on the matter, Green Party leader Charalmbos Theopemptou said the issue and spraying done to deal with it were discussed at a house environment committee session last week, where they learned about how the spraying had progressed in November and December – classed as the best times to spray in forests for the caterpillar.

Theopemptou said that the forestry department informed the committee that targeted areas had been sprayed, including public spaces, and forested areas, but that in villages it was more difficult due to people living close to the areas.

“Some areas were sprayed this year. Many countries, including Italy, Greece, and Cyprus are facing a problem with the pine processionary this year,” he said.

According to what was heard at the house session, which was confirmed to the Cyprus Mail by the director of the forestry department, Charalambos Alexandrou there were targeted sprayings conducted, but the department also intends to increase the number of traps placed to contain the caterpillar to limit the spread.

Alexandrou also called on the public to plant other trees in their gardens as a measure of to protect from attracting the caterpillar.

“Weather conditions this year and high temperatures [in November and December] have caused them [the caterpillars] to increase,” Alexandrou said.

He said that ideally to limit their spread and have effective spraying, temperatures in those months need to be less than 4 degrees C, while this year there were many days which were above 10 degrees C in those months.

Last month, the head of conservation at the department Constantinos Nicolaou said that people should avoid contact with the caterpillars as the hairs they carry create skin problems such as redness, itching, rashes and swelling. In such a case, he indicated, a visit to the doctor is necessary to provide the appropriate medical care.

Because of the problems it can cause to humans, he explained, the forestry department has focused its spraying on picnic areas, parks and along roads.

“If people have a pine at their home, make sure to spray in time in November and December,” he added, while emphasising that the removal and destruction of their [the caterpillar] nests should be done with care and preferably by gardeners.

On Monday, the forestry department said that the caterpillar is currently in the ground stage, meaning that they have stopped eating the pine needles, and the trees should begin growing back their foliage.