Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)

Descriptions & images of the 6 Skippers resident in Hampshire

The "Skippers" represent a very large family of butterflies comprising several thousand species worldwide. They are small butterflies with large bodies and heads in comparison to their wingspan, giving many of them a moth-like appearance. Their behaviour also is different from many other butterflies, having a short, rapid and darting flight ('skipping' from place to place) and in many cases assuming a resting position which is also more suggestive of moths. In UK there are 8 species of skipper of which 6 are present in Hampshire.

Occurrence (distribution based on 1km squares) and abundance (total population) trend data, extracted from the report "The State Of The UK's Butterflies 2015" published by Butterfly Conservation, is shown for each species and indicates the change in distribution and population during the last four decades (1976 - 2014) at UK national level. 

Dingy Skipper - Erynnis tages

Wingspan: 26-34mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -61%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -19% 

 

Although widely distributed in the south of England, this is a local species over much of UK becoming more scarce northwards. It favours open sunny locations such chalk downland, rough hillsides and rough ground, but can also be found along old railway lines and industrial 'brownfield' sites which have become waste ground. The butterfly often rests with the forewings angled backwards in a very moth-like stance. Whilst the butterfly is not perhaps our most inspiring, the delicate mottled pattern of the forewings in freshly emerged insects is anything but 'dingy'. The sole foodplant is birds-foot trefoil.

When to see: There is normally one generation each year, the adult butterflies emerging in early May, the flight period lasting until mid/late June. A partial second brood occasionally occurs in August.

Where to see: Good sites include Martin Down and Butser Hill (Rake Bottom). Other sites include Noar Hill, Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill (Warnford). 

Essex Skipper - Thymelicus lineola

Wingspan: ~25-30mm

 Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +104%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -88%

 

The Essex Skipper is a close relative of the Small Skipper (see below), and easily confused with it. Whilst the Essex Skipper has gradually been expanding its range northwards and westwards in the UK, probably as a result of climate change, this has been accompanied by a serious decline in its overall population, as it thins out in its core area of England's SE quadrant. The Essex Skipper is also found in similar haunts to the Small Skipper (rough grassland, woodland glades, but also rough embankments) and requires some coarse grasses in its habitat to thrive, such as cock's foot and couch grass on which the larvae feed. In order to confidentially distinguish between the Small Skipper and the Essex Skipper, it is necessary to view the underside of the tips of the antennae - in the Essex skipper the underside tips are jet black (and even glossy) whereas in the Small Skipper, the underside antennae lack a dark tip. With practice there are more subtle differences, such as the forewing shape and the male scent scale marking is less pronounced and is parallel to the forewing leading edge, instead of angled slightly towards the body.

When to see: One generation per year but emerging slightly later than the Small Skipper in early July though till mid or late August.

Where to see: Whenever little golden brown skippers are seen it's usual (but a mistake!) to assume they are all Small Skippers, since the two will often be seen together. Good sites providing a spectrum of habitat for Essex Skippers include Magdalen Hill Down, Old Winchester Hill, Noar Hill and Bentley Wood. 

Grizzled Skipper - Pyrgus malvae 

Wingspan: ~23-30mm

 Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -53%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -37%

 

The Grizzled Skipper is declining in the UK and is largely confined to small and medium-sized colonies in the South and Midlands. It is the first of our skippers to emerge in the spring and is a swift flyer, the males flying off to attack other males or chase females.  The Grizzled Skipper is found in rough dry ground where there is a good supply of nectar for the adults, such as flowers of bugle and also plentiful foodplant for the larvae, such as wild strawberry or tormentil. In Hampshire, most Grizzled skipper colonies are now found on chalk downland, the butterfly having significantly declined or disappeared from former woodland sites during the last few years, for reasons which are not well understood. However the ability of the overwintering pupa to survive the generally wetter winters we are experiencing, as a result of climate change, may be a factor.

When to see: There is only one generation per year, commencing mid-April through until early June.

Where to see: Good sites include Butser Hill (Rake Bottom and West Butser) and Martin Down. It used to be common in some woodland sites, however few woodland colonies now remain, but include Botley Wood. 

Large Skipper - Ochlodes sylvanus 

Wingspan: ~28-36mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -12%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -17% 

The Large Skipper is a widespread species up to southern Scotland and is usually found in areas of rough grassland with long uncut grasses, which occur on downs, hillsides, woods and along roadside verges. Like other skippers, its flight is swift, the butterflies stopping to rest on leaves or vegetation close to ground to bask or feed from flowers such as thistles. This species can be confused with the Silver-spotted Skipper which is much more local and has more precise habitat requirements. The Large Skipper lacks the conspicuous white/silvery spots on the underside wings. Large Skipper larvae feed on grasses such as cock's foot.

When to see: One generation per year, emerging in early June, the flight period lasting until early August.

Where to see: The butterfly will usually be found in suitable habitat. Noar Hill, Bentley Wood and Alice Holt (Straits Inclosure) are good sites.

 Silver-spotted Skipper - Hesperia comma

Wingspan; ~28-37mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +10%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +943% 

The Silver-spotted Skipper is at the limit of its European range in Southern England, where it is confined largely to well-grazed chalk downlands, often south facing which provide the short turf and warmer summer conditions that it needs. On suitable sites the species can be numerous, although its numbers have declined recently in Hampshire. The butterflies are extremely fast fliers, flying low to the ground, and basking on low vegetation or bare ground, but sometimes feeding on low flowers such as dwarf thistles. The larvae feed on sheep's fescue, a common grass on downland.

When to see: There is one generation per year, the butterflies being one of our last species to emerge in late July/early August, the flight period lasting until mid September.

Where to see: In Hampshire there is a scarcity of the well-grazed, short turf downland which the butterfly needs to thrive. However sites where it may be found (usually in low or modest numbers) include Broughton Down, Oxenbourne Down and Old Winchester Hill. It now seems to be very scarce at former reliable sites such as Stockbridge Down and Beacon Hill (Warnford), probably as a result of habitat deterioration.

Small Skipper - Thymelicus sylvestris

Wingspan: 26-34mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -7%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -75% 

The Small Skipper is a widespread species up to Northern England but has suffered a significant overall population decrease in the last few decades. It is still reasonably widespread and common in Hampshire in its favourite haunts - rough grassland, open woodland glades and even the rough edges of fields and waysides, where Yorkshire Fog (the foodplant of its larvae) can be found. The butterflies dart around with great speed and skill, wings a blur, resting on flower-heads in their characteristic pose with forewings raised and partly open.

When to see: There is one generation each year, from late June until mid-August.

Where to see: The species is common in suitable habitat. The sites mentioned for the Essex Skipper (Magdalen Hill Down, Old Winchester Hill, Noar Hill, and Bentley Wood) also have decent colonies of Small Skippers. Other sites include Pamber Forest, Stockbridge Down and Browndown (S).