Butterflies of Britain
Family - HESPERIIDAE
subfamily - PYRGINAE
Erynnis tages, copulating pair, Cerne
Abbas, Dorset ©
Despite it's rather unflattering vernacular name, this is a lovely
insect, worthy of much greater attention
than it generally attracts. Old faded butterflies may indeed be a
little dingy, but a freshly emerged Dingy Skipper shows itself to be
beautifully marked in subtle shades of brown and grey.
The butterfly is quite
variable in appearance, populations in woodlands tending to be
darker and more strongly marked, compared with the pallid specimens
which predominate on chalk landslips, quarries and limestone
are duller and more unicolorous,
a pronounced fold on the leading edge of the forewings.
This fold has special wing-scales called androconia that
are used to entice females during courtship.
male, Noar Hill, Hampshire ©
Dingy Skipper is distributed throughout most of Europe but is absent
from northern Scandinavia and most of the Mediterranean islands.
There are several other members of the genus found in temperate
Asia, North America, and the Andes.
There are no similar species in Britain, but in
Turkey, Greece and Albania the butterfly shares it's habitats and
emergence time with a similar species Erynnis
marloyi. The latter is distinguished by being darker and much
plainer than tages.
is localised throughout England and Wales,
preferring well drained, lightly grazed
grassy habitats where the larval foodplant bird's
foot trefoil grows in profusion.
with small but profuse patches of bare ground such as those created
by cattle poaching or by the erosion of small coombes.
calcareous grassland slopes, undercliffs, coastal landslips, dunes,
abandoned quarries, grassy heaths, railway cuttings, spoil heaps,
limestone pavements, and
In Scotland and northern
England it is primarily a coastal species, breeding on cliff-tops,
shingle banks and sand dunes.
colonies are small and very localised - a typical colony will
comprise of between 30-50 adults, although the numbers seen on any
particular day are usually much lower. The largest known colony, on
a stretch of undercliff in Dorset, probably holds about 200-300
adults at peak season.
male, Cerne Abbas, Dorset ©
The butterflies are normally single brooded in Britain, emerging in
May, although at the warmest sites in southern England there may
occasionally be a partial second brood in late July or early August.
In southern Europe there is usually a partial or complete second
brood emergence in July.
female at roost, Butser Hill, Hampshire ©
ribbed eggs are laid singly on the upper surface of leaflets of bird's
or less commonly on greater bird's
L. uliginosus. At some sites e.g.
Ballard Down in Dorset,
usually chosen despite a profusion of bird's foot trefoil. The eggs
are pale yellowish-green when first laid but turn bright orange
after 4 days, and hatch about 12 days after being laid.
During daylight hours the larva lives within a
loose tent of leaves spun together at the base of the
foodplant, and emerges to feed more openly in the early evening.
When fully grown it is yellowish green, faintly
marked with a dark line along the back, and pale lines along the
sides. The head is brown, with dark purplish-black markings.
early August the larva is almost fully grown, and at this point it
enters hibernation, over-wintering within
a thin silk tent. It remains inside this
hibernaculum until April, when it pupates.
Gently pulling apart the silk tent reveals the shiny pupa,
which has dark green wing cases and a brown abdomen.
In 2007, a very hot and early spring was followed by the dullest
and wettest British summer for 280 years. It was expected under
such conditions that the 2nd brood would be at best partial or
fail to materialise at all. However an almost complete 2nd brood
emergence occurred at Ballard Down in Dorset in late July. Dingy
Skipper larvae are nocturnal feeders, and in overcast weather
night time temperatures are higher, so they were able to develop
quickly and produce a second generation of adults.
warm but overcast days in
the butterflies bask with wings held flat, on bare soil, stones or low
sunny conditions they are very active, zipping
more than a few inches above the ground;
stopping occasionally to
for a moment or two on a grass head, or to nectar at their favourite
wild flowers - bird's
common vetch, horseshoe vetch, buttercups,
ground ivy, cranesbills,
speedwells and bugle.
generally hold the wings flat when nectaring, but in warm weather they
raise them at an angle of about 45 degrees, or sometimes if very warm
they hold the wings erect.
Erynnis tages, male perching, Bentley
Wood, Hampshire ©
When male Dingy Skippers encounter each
other a sortie takes place, with both butterflies whirling about in
tight circles close to the ground, occasionally making physical
contact. After about a minute the pair suddenly rocket skyward to a
height of about 3 metres, at which point the intruding male is chased
off, and the original occupant of the territory returns to continue
search of a female.
Copulation takes place mid-late
a sheltered spot,
at the base of a hill. During copulation both sexes spread their wings
female at roost on knapweed, Noar Hill, Hampshire ©
evening approaches, Dingy Skippers migrate to the last remaining
sunlit spots in their habitat. There they settle to bask on grass
the dead flower
heads of knapweeds
or St Johns wort.
temperature drops, and
last rays of sunshine fade, they adjust their position, wrapping
their wings tightly around the flower
extended periods of inclement weather, Dingy Skippers can aestivate
for long periods - on 14th May 2006 I found a pristine and
distinctively marked female, roosting at dusk on a dead knapweed
flower head at Noar Hill in Hampshire. That night the weather suddenly
deteriorated, and it remained wet and windy for the next 2 weeks. I
returned on 27th May and was surprised to find the butterfly still
alive, and still at roost on the same flower
from which it had been unable to move in the intervening period.