Small Skipper

Thymelicus sylvestris (thy-ME-lee-kuss sill-VESS-triss)

Small-Skipper- 5D32233 Notts, July 2015
Photo © IainLeach

27 - 34mm

Checklist Number

Family:HesperiidaeLatreille, 1809
Subfamily:HesperiinaeLatreille, 1809
Genus:ThymelicusHübner, [1819]
Species:sylvestris(Poda, 1761)

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This golden skipper is often found basking on vegetation, or making short buzzing flights among tall grass stems. Despite its name, 4 skipper species found in the British Isles are the same size or smaller than the Small Skipper. The male is distinguished from the female by the sex brand on its forewings, which is a slightly curved line of specialised scent scales. This butterfly is widespread on the British mainland, south of a line running between Westmorland in the west and North Northumberland in the east. It is absent from Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This species lives in discrete colonies of both small and large populations.

Thymelicus sylvestris

This species was first defined in Poda (1761) as shown here (type locality: Graz, Austria).

Small Skipper - Daneway Banks - 27th June - 2015

Photo © Maximus

Small Skipper Male - Crawley, Sussex 28-June-05

Male Underside
Photo © Vince Massimo

Small Skipper Female - Chaldon, Surrey 12-July-10

Photo © Vince Massimo

Small Skipper ovipositing - Surrey - 3rd July - 2015

Female Underside
Photo © Maximus

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Conservation Status

The status of the Small Skipper is considered stable and this delightful little skipper has even expanded its distribution slightly in recent years.

UK BAP StatusDistribution Trend (%)Population Trend (%)
Not Listed
Large Decrease-62

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 inhabits rough grassland, where tall grasses grow, and may occur on roadside verges, beside hedgerows, on overgrown downland, in woodland clearings and along woodland rides. The main foodplant is Yorkshire-fog, a common grass in the British Isles, although other grasses are also used.



Click here to see the distribution of this species or here to see the distribution of this species together with specific site information overlaid.

Life Cycle

The adults are on the wing in late June, through July, and into August.

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.


The male Small Skipper is territorial, and can be found resting on suitable perches from which it intercepts any passing butterfly. The male is the more active of the two sexes; females being more sedentary. Females exhibit unusual behaviour when egg-laying. The female will alight on a dead stem of Yorkshire-fog, and then move backwards down the stem, probing the sheath as she moves. When a suitable opening in the furled sheath has been found, she will lay several eggs inside. Both sexes are nectar-loving, and can be found visiting flowers such as Thistles and Red Clover.

Adults feed primarily on Betony (Stachys officinalis), Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Bramble (Rubus fruticosus), Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.), Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), Knapweeds (Centaurea spp.), Marjoram (Origanum vulgare), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Sanfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.) and Vetches (Vicia spp.).

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As many as 8 oval-shaped eggs may be laid in a row inside a leaf sheath of the foodplant. They are white when first laid, but gradually turn pale yellow. Eggs hatch in around 3 weeks.

Small Skipper - ovum - Stockbridge Down - 24-Jul-14

Photo © Pete Eeles

Small Skipper Ova, Oxenbourne Down, 15/07/2014

Photo © Pauline

Small Skipper Ova - Somerset - 26/07/14

Photo © William

Small Skipper ova, Oxenbourne Down, 13/07/2015

Photo © Pauline

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The larva eats its eggshell on hatching, and subsequently spins a dense silk cocoon around itself, still inside the grass sheath. The larva hibernates within the cocoon, alongside other cocoons formed by its siblings. The larva emerges from the cocoon in April to live a solitary existence. It forms a tube by spinning together the edges of a leaf and, in early instars, feeds within the tube. In later instars the larva feeds outside the tube, leaving characteristics notches in the grass blade. The larva will move to new leaves, creating new suitably-sized tubes, as needed. The larva moults 4 times in total.

The primary larval foodplant is Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus). Cock's-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Creeping Soft-grass (Holcus mollis), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) and Timothy (Phleum pratense) are also used.

Small Skipper - larva - Thatcham - 29-Apr-13 (2) [REARED]

Photo © Pete Eeles

c 1526 Small Skipper larva 10 01#001 [Ben Smart]

Photo © Ben Smart

c 1526 Small Skipper larw 10 21#001 [Ben Smart]

Photo © Ben Smart

Small Skipper - larva - Greenham Common - 22-Aug-12

Photo © Pete Eeles
Overwintering cocoons

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When fully-grown, the larva spins a tent of leaves at the base of the foodplant within which it pupates. The pupa is attached to a grass blade within the tent, attached by a silken girdle and the cremaster. The pupal stage lasts around 2 weeks.

c 1526 Small Skipper pupa 10 03#001 [Ben Smart]

Photo © Ben Smart

DSCN9556#001 [Ben Smart]

Photo © Ben Smart

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Description to be completed.

Click here to see the aberration descriptions and images for this species.

Similar Species

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper and Small Skipper can be distinguished by the colour of the underside of the tips of the antennae. In the Essex Skipper, this area is black and in the Small Skipper it is brown. This holds true for both sexes.

Essex Skipper (left) and Small Skipper (right)

Males can also be distinguished by the sex brand found on the upperside of their forewings. The sex brand of a male Essex Skipper is relatively-short when compared with that of the male Small Skipper. The sex brand of a male Essex Skipper also runs parallel with the leading edge of the forewing, but at an angle in the male Small Skipper.

Male Essex Skipper (left) and Male Small Skipper (right)

Large Skipper

Description to be completed.

Lulworth Skipper

Description to be completed.


Watch Video

The following links provide additional information on this butterfly.


The species description provided here references the following publications:

Hübner (1819) Hübner, J. (1819) Verzeichniss bekannter Schmettlinge.
Latreille (1809) Latreille, P.A. (1809) Genera crustaceorum et insectorum secundum ordinem naturalem in familias disposita, iconibus exemplisque plurimis explicata.
Poda (1761) Poda von Neuhaus, N. (1761) Insecta musei Graecensis.