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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

MUIRHEAD`S MYSTERIES: THE KAISER`S CATERPILLARS - EARLY PLAGUE WARFARE OR AN U.F.O. SCARE?

Dear folks,

Today`s blog is about a strange occurrence during World War One near the Jenkin(a) Chapel area of the Peak District, in the vicinity of Saltersford. I wrote a letter to Animals & Men a few years ago asking for further information but none turned up. Like so many Fortean stories I have found, this one was discovered whilst I was a patient in a psychiatric hospital. But it wasn`t a delusion, because I have the extract right in front of me. The story of the Kaiser`s caterpillars was published in In And Around The Peak District by Doug Pickford (1993), a Macclesfield historian who has been connected with Old Macc magazine.

Pickford asks:

'Did a German Zeppelin drop millions of caterpillars around the Jenkin Chapel area of Saltersford? An unlikely if not preposterous question may well say,but some senior Saltersford and Rainow residents are firmly of the opinion that this very much the case during the First World War. Since hearing of this strange incident I have spoken to a number of inhabitants of the area who can recall the events that unfolded during the dark days of war in the year 1917, when a plague of millions upon millions of caterpillars descended on the area.' (1)

Now when I first read this I thought of three things: I have read about swarms of insects appearing, even in the unlikeliest of places, such as in urban areas. But I have not heard of millions upon millions; that does seem a lot. I am no entomologist, but Pickord describes them as being 'furry' (2) and 'black and yellow', 'some one and a half inches in length' (3) and a great number of crows ('thousands' 4) came from a wide area to feast on the multitude of insects. Also, I remembered that pre-World War One was a time of phantom airship scares, which I know nothing about. Does anyone know of associations between swarms of insects and U.F.Os? Thirdly, if this wasn`t an early U.F.O. was it a German attempt at 'plague warfare'? Note the caterpillars, if that is what they were, appeared just in time for the harvest.

Pickord picks up (if you`ll pardon the pun!) the story at around harvest time, 1917. This would be around the time of the Russian Revolution:

'The only Zeppelin - a gas filled balloon powered by propellers - known to have flown over that particular area came one moonlit night in 1917. The exact date has not been ascertained but it was around harvest time. The German aircraft is said to have dropped a bomb at Pott Shrigley but it did not explode and then it turned and flew over the valley, over Rainow and on to Saltersford. It was eventually brought down when it reached the coast. However, that night and the following morning locals discovered literally millions of black and yellow coloured furry caterpillars some one and a half inches in length. They were everywhere. The plague of wriggling creatures appeared to be centred on Greenstacks Farm where all the downstairs rooms were covered inches high with the creatures. Green Booth and Hollowcowhey Farms were also affected very badly. My 83 year old informant told me “It was though a stone had been thrown in a pool, with the ripples strong in the middle at Greenstacks and they went out for about a mile in circumference. Farms were almost bankrupt after. The caterpillars had eaten everything. There was no grass, no greenery at all growing. There was no food for the cattle and there was no hay to be harvested. Afterwards the area was black where grass and crops should have been [this blackness is interesting, it occurs in some mystery snake reports-RM]….And then the crows came. Apparently “thousands of crows” came from all around and started to eat those furry caterpillars with a vengeance. They gorged themselves until they were so full they could not fly. A lot of them managed to get on to the tops of the drystone walls and stayed there for hours, unable to move off. The walls were turned white with their droppings.' (5)

The story goes on to describe how the curate of St Peter`s in Macclesfield [this may be the same as the church I used to go to-RM] was posted to Rainow during the Great War. He collected some of the caterpillars but there is no record of what he found out about them. As for the villagers: '…It was a frightening experience for them, not least because they appeared from nowhere…dropped from the sky,perhaps, as a secret weapon by an enemy hell bent on destruction? Or was it one of nature`s aberrations?' (6)

a. Jenkin was a drover who preached at a 'preaching cross' at a crossroads in this area.

1. D.Pickford. In And Around The Peak District (1993). pp5-6
2. D. Pickford Ibid. p7
3. D. Pickford Ibid.p7
4. D. Pickford Ibid. p.8
5. D. Pickford Ibid pp 7-8
6. D. Pickford Ibid p 10.

Muirhead`s Mysteries will be taking a short break till Tuesday November 3rd. I will be 43 on the 5th. Yipee, bank, wizzzz!! - Bonfire Night. Rare crypto books and bottles of ginger wine kindly appreciated. Just don`t ask me to blow up Parliamant, I`m not that radical!


October, trees are stripped bare,of all they wear,
Do I care?
October,kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall,
But You go on and..on. (U2 October)

2 comments:

Tilmeeth said...

Great post! And many happy returns for the 5th :))

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

This sort of case is most intriguing to me, as some years ago I studied entomology quite intensively.

Now, the first thing to put to rest is the idea that this was a bio-weapons attack. This is almost certain to be bogus, since mass-breeding any insect is difficult, and mass breeding lepidopterans is especially fraught with difficulty. The problem is that a caterpillar is, to a fairly astonishing range of things from bacteria to fungi, nematodes, parasitoid wasps, parasitoid flies, beetles, wasps and even mice a very tasty meal.

Once you start breeding a single species of insect, then you have to start watching for an infestation of anything that wants to use said insect as food, and when such a parasite gets into your colony, you have to do something to get rid of the parasite. Usually, dividing your breeding facility up into a multitude of small enclosures and keeping these separate is the best plan; an infested sub-enclosure can be simply sterilised, caterpillars and all.

The downside of doing this is that it is labour-intensive, and the more caterpillars you want to breed, the more labour-intensive it becomes and the more area you need to do the work in. This infestation was on the order of tens of millions of individuals and breeding that many is infeasible for the technology of circa 1900, unless a huge area was used.

Big projects like this get recorded, especially as the caterpillars were hairy. Hairy caterpillars are toxic to people, and a breeding programme on this scale would have generated a lot of reports of allergies from the hairs of the insects.

No, I think that this was a natural infestation of oak processionary moths, a species which normally doesn't occur as far north as Britain and which hence doesn't have any specialist predators up here. These moths are known to be extremely prolific pests and do tend to form large aggregations; plus they would normally be expected to be hitting the last two instars before pupation around July which is about when harvest takes place.