Small Skipper

Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris (Poda 1761)

Family: Hesperidae, (The Skippers)


Photos top right and left by Catherine Jones

Photo above by Michelle Smart (also header photo)

The Small Skipper is a small orange-brown butterfly, with a with a fat and short moth-like body. Freshly emerged specimens look golden in sunlight, but look drab when worn.

Male and females are alike except that males have a sex brand, which is a thin, black, slightly curving line on upper forewings. Both males and females often rest in a characteristic 'skipper' fashion, with forewings held upwards in a V-shape, and hindwings horizontal. Their flight is fast and darting and the butterflies can be hard to see when nectaring or resting on flowers because of their brown-ish colour. They respond well to sunshine and fly about but drop down into vegetation or become very still if the sky clouds over or it rains.

The Small Skipper is of often confused with the Essex Skipper and it takes some practice to tell them apart. Previously the Essex Skipper was extremely rare in Yorkshire so this was not an issue but it is now becoming more common and appears to be gradually moving north. Therefore it can no longer be assumed that all small golden skippers are Small Skippers.

Small Skipper underside antennae tips are rather variable, from orange brown to dark brown and can look as though they have black tips, but with rather blurry edges and the darkness extending above and below the tips. However Essex Skippers have sharply defined, glossy black tips to the underside of each antenna. lt looks like the antennae tips have been dipped into black ink, leaving a stain on the undersides, but not the uppersides. The antennae are often bright orange-brown above and paler underneath, with the black tip forming a sharp contrast. They can also be darker with an orange-brown patch adjoining the black tips.

Another difference is that the sex brand of a male Small Skipper is long and at an angle to the edge of the wing, whereas male Essex Skippers have shorter, straighter sex brands, which are parallel to the forewing edge.


The Small skipper likes open areas, but with tall clumps of the larval foodplant grasses. These are Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus, Timothy Phleum pratense, Creeping Soft-grass Holcus mollis and Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata. Yorkshire Fog in particular is a common grass which grows on many soil types.

Therefore any habitat where grasses are allowed to grow tall may be suitable; e.g. road verges, open woodland rides and old industrial sites. The species is quite hardy and can also be seen flying in very exposed places such as high open moorland. Although it is not a typical garden butterfly, adults may visit gardens and nectar on Buddleia.


Over the last 50 or so years the species has been rapidly spreading around Yorkshire and is now found throughout the county and at most heights except the highest peaks. However it still lives in local colonies in grassland habitats. It is often under recorded because it goes unnoticed and also females are often lower down in the grass and so not counted. Before around 1970 the species was rare in Yorkshire.

Small Skippers do not like machine cut or grazed grass and so may be partly expanding north due to the new wide verges of the A1. Overwintering larvae may be lost if grassland is heavily grazed or machine cut after egg laying.

Life Cycle

There is only one brood each year, flying in July and August.

Female Small Skippers fly unusually slowly when searching for suitable grasses on which to lay eggs. They then crawl backwards down the stem, keeping their abdomens in contact with the surface, until meeting the opening of the furled leaf sheath. Inside this they deposit a row of up to eight white, oval eggs. A single blade may sometimes hold several batches from different females, but apparently never more than eight from any one individual.

Eggs become creamy-yellow with age and hatch after three to four weeks. Each larva eats its eggshell then spins a silken cocoon around itself and immediately hibernates inside the grass sheath until the following spring. By going straight into hibernation it can make the most of feeding on fresh growth the following year.

Larvae are green with three pale stripes and, post hibernation, develop through five instars, until June or early July, when green pupae are formed at the base of a grass clump inside a protective tent made by binding leaves together with silk. The adults emerge after about two weeks.

Over much of the county the adult peak is usually in mid-July, although wet weather in late June may cause this to be later. Emergence can be later in the north and west and on high ground. Some specimens are still around in September. Adults nectar on lots of different plants, including scabious, knapweed, thistles, trefoil and vetch.


The species is not under threat.


Only 13 variations have been described, mainly affecting ground colour: e.g. silvery cream in ab pallida Tutt; yellowish white in ab margarita Frohawk, and chocolate brown in ab brunnea Verity. Melanism also occurs, both partial, as in ab obscura Tutt, and complete, as in ab sutfusa Tutt.

With thanks to The Butterflies of Yorkshire edited by Howard M Frost

Catherine Jones 04/01/21