A LEADING doctor has called on landowners to help combat a debilitating and potentially deadly disease, cases of which have dramatically increased.
Dr John Gillies, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Scotland, has urged organisations that own and manage public footpaths to put up warning notices about Lyme disease, a chronic bacterial infection caused by tick bites.
He made the call after his return home from a rambling holiday in England, where he saw posters giving information about the illness and how to prevent it.
"I was walking along a stretch of the South West Coastal Path in Devon and there were signs at regular intervals along the path warning people of ticks, about how to remove them, and what to look out for," he said.
"The posters were placed at regular intervals, probably every 10 miles or so, with pictures of ticks and information about Lyme disease. I thought it was an excellent idea. I go walking in Scotland quite regularly but I haven't noticed any such signs, and think it would be a good idea if organisations and landowners put them up."
Last month the Mountaineering Council of Scotland warned walkers and climbers to be on the lookout for ticks this year, after an explosion in their number thanks to the mild winter.
Dr Gillies spoke out as many Scots prepare to head to the Highlands and Islands for breaks in the summer - the time when ticks are most active.
His call was backed by Lyme disease patient and campaigner Nicola Seal, 40, a former ecologist, from Aberdeen, who contracted the disease while on holiday on Rum. She has spent £30,000 on private treatment.
She said: "I'm delighted Dr Gillies has put this idea forward, and it's certainly one I support.
"People shouldn't be put off from enjoying the countryside, but they should protect themselves from tick bites when they are out and about."
She said people out on the hills should stick to pathways, wear insect repellent and avoid wearing shorts.
Other precautions include tucking trousers into socks and check regularly for bites.
Between 2001 and 2010 the number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Scotland soared from 28 to 308, though experts believe the true figure could be 10 times that number.
Rates are more than three times higher in Scotland than in England.
The disease was linked to the death of Ross-shire gamekeeper Scott Beattie, 43, last year. Doctors and scientists are drawing up the first official clinical guidance for treatment of the disease.
A National Trust for Scotland spokeswoman said most of the countryside it conserves is wild land and it would be inappropriate to place signage there.
She added: "As there is a 'right to roam' in Scotland, visitors and hill walkers do not necessarily stick to particular routes and pathways - as a result it is very difficult to position signage that would be seen by a majority of visitors outwith car parks and established visitor centres."
"It is our view that we should avoid scaring people away from the countryside, as, with reasonable precautions, the danger of tick bites can be minimised."
A spokesman for Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners and rural businesses, said: "Our members take their health and safety responsibilities seriously and in our experience use signage where appropriate, including information boards.
"However, we are very ready to listen to the views expressed by people such as Dr Gillies to see if any further actions are necessary."