Small Heath

Coenonympha pamphilus (SEE-no-nymph-uh PAM-fi-luss)

Small-Heath-Cambridge 8 August 2010 I9T0893
Photo © IainLeach

Male: 33mm
Female: 37mm

Checklist Number

Family:Nymphalidae (Swainson, 1827)
Subfamily:Satyrinae (Boisduval, 1833)
Tribe:Coenonymphini (Tutt, 1896b)
Genus:Coenonympha (Hübner, 1819)
Species:pamphilus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Subspecies:pamphilus (Linnaeus, 1758)
 rhoumensis (Harrison, 1948)

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Despite its name, the Small Heath is not confined to heathland and can be found in a wide variety of habitats. The main distinguishing feature of this species is that this is the smallest of our 'browns' and is closer in size to a skipper, Common Blue or Brown Argus than its relatives, such as the Meadow Brown. However, its fluttering flight is quite different from that of the skippers and blues and is relatively-easy to identify in the field. This charming little butterfly always settles with its wings closed, where the eye spot on the underside of the forewing is usually visible, acting as a decoy to any predator. The forewings are tucked behind the hindwings when roosting for long periods, or in dull weather, the butterfly looking quite inconspicuous as the browns and greys of the underside of the hindwing blend in with their surroundings.

This is a widespread butterfly and can be found over most of the British Isles, with the exception of Orkney and Shetland and mountainous regions. It lives in discrete colonies and adults rarely venture far from the colony. However, the odd adult will venture further afield and will colonise nearby habitat if it is suitable.

Taxonomy Notes

Verity (1911b) uses the name ssp. scota to describe the race from the north coast of Scotland. On the underside the whitish space of the hindwings is excessively broad, its forepart extending, both on fore and hindwings, as far as the ocellus or ocelli.

Verity (1926) uses the name ssp. londinii to describe the race from southern England. The underside of the hindwings are suffused with a rich warm chestnut tinge to an extent not seen in any other race. Also, on the underside of the forewings, there is a sharp black streak that divides the wings from the costa to the second cubital nervure, showing a bolder pattern than other races.

Coenonympha pamphilus ssp. pamphilus

This species was first defined in Linnaeus (1758) as shown here (type locality: Europe).

The nominate form is found throughout the range of this species, with the exception of some area of the Hebrides in north-west Scotland, as discussed under ssp. rhoumensis.

Small Heath Male, Forden South Dale 4-June-06 [Jeff.S.Barker]

Photo © Jeff.S.Barker

Small Heath - Chaldon, Surrey 5-June-10

Male Underside
Photo © Vince Massimo

Small Heath female - Seaford, Sussex 29-July-2014

Photo © badgerbob

Small-Heath-York 10 August 2009 I9T1076

Female Underside
Photo © IainLeach

Photo Album ...

Coenonympha pamphilus ssp. rhoumensis

This subspecies was first defined in Harrison (1948) as shown here (type locality: Isle of Rhum, Scotland).

This subspecies is found on the Isle of Rhum in the North Ebudes of Scotland, where it is widespread and common. Harrison (1951) extends its distribution to North Uist, South Uist, Eriskay and "one or two of the smaller members of" the Barra isles (but not Barra itself) and Harrison (1952) further extends this to Raasay where he also says "It is perhaps worthy of note that on Rhum the butterfly flew at an elevation of over 1,000 ft. on Barkeval and at 1,500 ft. on Ruinsival, whilst it occurred at sea level, with Argynnis selene and its congener C.tullia, along the northern shores of Loch Scresort".

Wiltshire (1967) questions the validity of a separate subtaxon based on specimens in the Rothschild-Cockayne-Kettlewell collection, taken in the Hebrides, which conformed to the nominate form. This subspecies differs from the nominate subspecies as follows:

  • 1. Forewing underside has a duller ground colour and a narrower pale area around the eye spot.
  • 2. Hindwing underside largely grey rather than brown. The white band is inconspicuous, narrower and often absent.

Coenonympha pamphilus ssp. rhoumensis (Harrison, 1948)

Forewings: on the underside with a duller brown ground colour and with the pale area around the ocellus narrower than in northern English specimens of the species.

Hindwings: on the underside English examples have the ground broken into three areas, a basal brownish portion tending to chestnut, a conspicuous yellowish-white median band, often quite broad, and a terminal or marginal band in which are to be seen the obsolescent brownish ocelli. In race rhoumensis the basal section is more or less grey sprinkled, its vestiture of greyish hairs preventing its ever appearing of a brown hue, whilst the inconspicuous median hand, reduced in width and often obsolescent, especially toward the inner margin, is also of a greyer colour merging into that of the grey terminal band. Ocelli also greyer than in English specimens.

On the whole, race rhoumensis tends to agree in the uniformity of its underside colouration with the race scotica, Stgr., of the allied species C. tullia.

Holotype ♂, allotype ♀ and 5 paratype ♂♂, Isle of Rhum, 9th-12th June; collected by J.W.H.H. and being deposited in the Hope Department, University Museum, Oxford.


Male Underside


Small Heath - imago - Kinloch, Isle of Rhum - Unknown date [Adrian Riley]

Female Underside
Photo © Adrian Riley

Photo Album ...

Conservation Status

This butterfly has shown a severe decline over the long term and is therefore a priority species for conservation efforts.

UK BAP StatusDistribution Trend (%)Population Trend (%)
Priority Species
Click here to access the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for this species.
Large Decrease-52

The table above shows the distribution and population trends of species regularly found in the British Isles. The distribution trend represents a comparison between data for the periods 1995-1999 and 2005-2009. The information provided is taken from the Butterfly Conservation report The State of the UK's Butterflies 2011. The UK BAP status is taken from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) (2007 review).


This species can be found in many different habitats, especially those that are more open, such as grassland, heathland, railway embankments, disused quarries, meadows and sand dunes. It occurs only sparingly in woodland where it can be found in ones and twos along wide woodland rides. Wherever it occurs, the adults prefer a shorter grass sward than closely related species.



Click here to see the distribution of this species or here to see the distribution of this species together with specific site information overlaid. Alternatively, select one of the sites listed below.

Airhouse Quarry, Alemoor West Loch and Meadow SSSI, Allan Water Hillhead SSSI, Arthur's Seat, Aston Rowant NNR, Aylesbeare Common, Badbury Rings, Beachy Head, Bedfont Lakes Country Park LNR, Bin Combe, Bishop Middleham Quarry, Box Hill, Broughton Down, Burnmouth Coast SSSI, Cambus O'May, Chobham Common, Coldingham Bay, Collard Hill, Coombe Heath, Cwm Colhuw, Denbies Hillside, Dowlaw Dean, Dunhog Moss SSSI, Eildon Hills, Ellerburn Bank, Ettrick Haughlands, Fleam Dyke, Glenkinnon Burn SSSI, Gordon Moss SSSI, Great Orme, Greenlaw Dean, Hangingshaw Burn, Hartwoodmyres, Horsenden Hill, Hounslow Heath LNR, Hutton Roof Crags, Irton Fell, Kenfig Pool, Kinloch, Larden Chase, Lauder Burn, Laughton Common Wood, Lindean Reservoir SSSI, Linn Dean, Mayford Pond, Meldon Hills, Mill Hill, Mynydd Marian, Norton Green, Old Castle Down, Old Down, Basingstoke, Over Cutting, Prees Heath, Pulborough Brooks (RSPB), Rookery, Roughlee, Shankend, Smardale Gill, St Abbs Head, St. Abbs Head to Fast Castle SSSI, Staines Moor, Sutton and Hollesley Commons, The Bell, Thornielee Forest, Threepwood Moss SSSI, Torr Works, Totternhoe Knolls and Quarry, Wall Common, White Sheet Hill, Whitlaw Mosses NNR, Windover Hill, Yair Hill Forest, Yoesden Bank

Life Cycle

Populations found in the north have one generation each year, while populations in the south have two generations each year and possibly three in exceptional years. Adults can be found continuously from late May until mid-September as a result. In all locations, it is the larva that overwinters.

Coenonympha pamphilus ssp. pamphilus

Coenonympha pamphilus ssp. rhoumensis

The chart(s) above have been correlated with the phenology plot below, taken from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. The blue line gives average counts over the full data set from 1976 to date, and the red line gives the average for the last year.


Males set up territories where they can be found perching, although they also spend time patrolling in search of a mate. When a male encounters another, the pair flies a few metres up into the air before separating. Virgin females will also zig-zag over the vegetation in search of a mate. Mating may happen at any time of day and a mating pair may remain coupled from as little as 10 minutes up to 5 hours.

Mated females tend to avoid male territories, flying over sparse grassland where they lay their eggs. Both sexes feed on a variety of nectar sources.

Adults feed primarily on Bramble (Rubus fruticosus), Buttercups (Ranunculus spp.), Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Photo Album ...


The almost-spherical eggs are laid singly on a grass blade or nearby vegetation. They are pale green when first laid, eventually turning straw-coloured and covered in blotches. This stage lasts around 2 weeks.

Small Heath - ovum - Bishop Middleham Quarry - 15-Jul-06 (2) [Wayne Jones]

Photo © Wayne Jones

Small Heath - ovum - Bishop Middleham Quarry - 15-Jul-06 [Wayne Jones]

Photo © Wayne Jones

Small Heath ovum 3-Sept-2013

Photo © Tony Moore

Small Heath ovum - Found at Prees Heath by watching laying female. September 2013

Photo © Tony Moore

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Larvae spend most of their time tucked away at the base of a tuft of grass, feeding at night on the tender tips of grass blades. Depending on conditions, larvae will either go on to produce adults in the same year, or may overwinter.

The primary larval foodplants are Bents (various) (Agrostis spp.), Fescues (various) (Festuca spp.) and Meadow-grasses (various) (Poa spp.).

Small Heath - larva - Thatcham - 17-Apr-05 (2) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles

Coenonympha pamphilus - Larva (Swabian Alb, Southern Germany 2012) [Wolfgang Wagner]

Photo © Wolfgang Wagner

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The pupa is formed, head down, attached to a plant stem by the cremaster. This stage lasts around 3 weeks.

Coenonympha pamphilus - Pupa [Wolfgang Wagner]

Photo © Wolfgang Wagner

Photo Album ...


Description to be completed.

Unclassified Aberrations

Small Heath (ab. alba) Hadleigh Country Park, Essex 06.07.15

Photo © bugboy

Small Heath (ab.alba) - near Mayfield, Sussex 20-June-2014 [Mike Mullis]1

Photo © Mike Mullis

Small Heath (ab. obsoletissima) - Broughton Downs 1-Sept-2007

Photo © Ashywolf

Small-Heath-Lincoln 25 July 2009 I9T2540 (extra underwing eyespot)

Photo © IainLeach

Photo Album ...

Similar Species

Large Heath

Description to be completed.


No videos are currently available for this species.

The following links provide additional information on this butterfly.


The species description provided here references the following publications:

Boisduval (1833) Boisduval, J.A. (1833) Icones historiques des Lépidoptères d'Europe nouveaux.
Hübner (1819) Hübner, J. (1819) Verzeichniss bekannter Schmettlinge.
Harrison (1948) Harrison, J.W.H. (1948) A new race of Coenonympha pamphilus L. from the Hebrides. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation.
Harrison (1951) Harrison, J.W.H (1951) Observations on the ranges, habitats and variation of the Rhopalocera of the Outer Hebrides. Entomologist's Monthly Magazine.
Harrison (1952) Harrison, J.W.H. and Morton, J.K. (1952) Lepidoptera in the Isles of Raasay, Rhum, Lewis and Harris in 1951. The Entomologist.
Linnaeus (1758) Linnaeus, C. (1758) Systema Naturae. Edition 10.
Swainson (1827) Swainson, W. (1827) A Sketch of the Natural Affinities of the Lepidoptera Diurna of Latreille. The Philosophical magazine : or Annals of chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, natural history and general science.
Tutt (1896b) Tutt, J.W. (1896) The Classification of British Butterflies. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation.
Verity (1911b) Verity, R. (1911) Alcuni Lepidotteri inediti o non ancora figurati. Bollettino della Società entomologica italiana.
Verity (1926) Verity, R. (1926) Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Insektenbiologie.
Wiltshire (1967) Wiltshire, E.P. (1967) A Holiday in Ross-shire, Scotland in late July 1967 with notes on the Lepidoptera. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation.