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Professional Version

Head Flies of Cattle and Sheep

(Plantation Flies)


Jan Šlapeta

, MVDr, PhD, GradCertEd (Higher Ed), Sydney School of Veterinary Science, The University of Sydney

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2022 | Modified Oct 2022

Head flies or plantation flies, Hydrotaea irritans, are nonbiting flies found in large numbers in northern European countries, especially Denmark and Great Britain, where they are pests of cattle, sheep, and other production animals. This fly resembles the house fly and is ~4–7 mm long. The thorax is black with gray patches, the abdomen is olive green, and the wing bases are orange yellow.

Head flies are a nuisance to domestic animals and humans because they are attracted to the mouth, nose, ears, eyes, and wounds to feed on secretions. Unlike other Hydrotaea spp, H irritans produces one generation per year, with three larval instar stages. Eggs deposited in late summer hatch out larvae within a few days. The saprophagous stage is brief, before development to the stage that is predatory on other insect larvae. Overwintering occurs as late-stage larvae. Adults are most active from early June until late September and are common in the vicinity of thickets or woodlands in which they shelter between periods of feeding.

Pathology of Head Flies of Cattle and Sheep

In Great Britain, sheep are mainly affected. Large swarms of flies, attracted by the movement of animals, congregate to feed on secretions from the eyes and nose and on the cellular debris at the grown horn base. To alleviate the persistent irritation, sheep scratch and rub their heads, resulting in raw wounds or “broken heads,” especially on the poll. Flies, attracted by the blood, settle on these self-inflicted lesions and extend the margins by their feeding activity. Sheep of all ages are involved; however, breeds with horns and without wool on the head are most severely affected.

Head flies also attack humans, deer, horses, cattle, and rabbits. Although no corresponding broken head lesions develop in cattle, the occurrence of summer mastitis (due to Trueperella pyogenes) and the seasonal activity of head flies are closely associated, especially in Denmark. Head flies may also be involved in the transmission of myxomatosis Myxomatosis Viruses are not important causes of clinical disease of rabbits in the USA but include the infectious fibromas, papillomatosis, rabbitpox, myxomatosis, and a herpesvirus infection (virus 3)... read more Myxomatosis in rabbits.

Treatment and Control of Head Flies of Cattle and Sheep

  • Control of head flies is difficult

  • Removal of production animals from infested locations during the fly season

The development, emergence, and congregation of head flies, which occur away from farm areas, preclude the traditional methods of insecticide spraying of generalized breeding sites and resting habitats. Control at the point of contact between the feeding adult insects and the mammalian hosts is also limited in value. With sheep, the retention of organophosphate compounds or pyrethrin derivatives on the susceptible head areas is of short duration, which necessitates impractical reapplications in free-ranging animals. Use of insecticide-impregnated ear tags in cattle decreases the incidence of summer mastitis, presumably by reducing transmission by head flies.

Removal of production animals from infested locations during the fly season is the only completely effective way to prevent damage. Once broken heads have occurred, the housing of sheep is the only successful method to stop further fly damage.

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