5 Skippers: There are 7 British skippers and 5 of them occur in the Parish. They are a group of closely related small butterflies often a bit smaller than a common blue. They have a very buzzy, moth-like flight. Beware there are several, more or less brown, small, day-flying moths that they might be confused with, such as the Burnet Companion and the Mother Shipton. However, they do have the distinctive clubbed antennae characteristic of butterflies. The Grizzled and Dingy skippers hold their wings flat and can therefore look very moth-like. The Large, Small, and Essex Skippers hold their wings in a very characteristic pose at 45 degrees – I think of how aeroplanes on aircraft carriers fold their wings before being taken down into the hold.
Dingy Skipper: is the earliest to emerge in mid-April. It overwinters as a fully developed larva in a hibernaculum hidden in ground vegetation and only pupates inside this at the end of March to emerge as an adult a few weeks later. The Adults are fond of yellow flowers as nectar sources and the female after mating, seeks out bird’s foot trefoil and sometimes horseshoe vetch, on which to lay individual eggs. The newly hatched caterpillar will feed and moult 4 times until fully developed after which it will build its hibernaculum using silk to hold dead leaves together, and inside, pass the winter.
Grizzled Skipper: This butterfly emerges from the pupa in which it has over-wintered in mid-April or May. The whirring flight of this tiny butterfly means that its distinctive wing markings only become visible when it settles to bask in the sunshine. They require warmth, shelter and sparse vegetation that enables them to find bare ground on which to bask and wild strawberry plants on which to lay eggs for their caterpillars to feed on. Suitable habitats stretch all along the south facing Mendip scarp. The larvae go through to pupation before the end of the summer and over-winter at this stage. Pupae in short grass sites emerge earlier in the Spring than in taller vegetation sites presumably because they warm up more readily which speeds development. This is an important part of their requirement for sparsely vegetated sites.
Large Skipper: This is a butterfly of a wide variety of grassy sites where the grass can grow quite tall. Roadsides, woodland rides, hedges as well as the various reserves across Mendip. It, and the next two grass-feeding skippers are likely to benefit greatly from less cutting of roadside verges and places like churchyards where the grass is increasingly being allowed to grow tall and is only cut in late July or August. The patchwork of pale spots and darker areas on the wings make them easy to distinguish from the properly ‘golden’ skippers’ – Small and Essex. The adults emerge from the end of May and through June and are very fond of nectar sources like brambles and thistles which they can access easily with their exceptionally long proboscis. Eggs are laid on quite tall grasses like Cock’s Foot that are growing in places that are both sheltered and in full sunshine. The larva that emerges goes through 7 instars before pupating. Once is gets to the 5th instar, towards the end of the summer, the caterpillar makes a hibernaculum of leaf blades held together with silk in which it passes the winter. In March it emerges from hibernation and feeds and grows and after the 7th instar forms a pupa in the middle of May from which the adult will emerge between the end of May and the end of July.
Small Skipper: When newly emerged, the wings are a bright gold colour with a narrow dark border but none of the spots and patches of the Large Skipper. Like the large skipper they do well in quite tall grass grasslands with an abundance of nectar sources and of its favourite larval food plant, the grass, Yorkshire Fog, though other grasses are also used. The female, after mating, lays eggs in small groups in the hollow rolled grass leaf bases. The caterpillar has 5 instars and in its 5th instar over-winters in a silken cocoon. The following year these caterpillars pupate towards the end of May from which these smart little butterflies emerge from early June until the end of July.
Essex Skipper: To all intents and purposes the adults of Essex Skippers look nearly identical to the Small Skipper so that confusion is a normal part of a butterfly recorder’s life. In the males the sex brand is a little shorter and straighter than that of the Small Skipper male which is, of course, no help in identifying the females. The only reliable characteristic is the underside of the tips of the antennae which are jet black in Essex and brown in Small Skippers. Studying photographs taken from head on is the only reliable method of identification. Just taking such photographs is a difficult task with such an active little butterfly. As with the Large and Small Skippers this is a butterfly of hay meadows, roadside verges, woodland rides and any tall grass grasslands with abundant nectar sources. The females after mating lay eggs in the tightly rolled leaf sheaths of grasses, particularly Cock’s foot, and positions these eggs rather nearer to the ground than the small skipper does. The egg when close to hatching pauses its development and goes into hibernation and it is only in the following late March or early April that it hatches and starts to feed. After reaching the 5th instar it pupates in a rolled leaf held together with silk and emerges a little later than the Small Skippers in the middle of June and through into July. It is believed that Essex Skippers are genuinely expanding their range from an original stronghold in Essex both northwards and westwards. The potential for transport as overwintering eggs in hay may help with this spread and is how it has been able to spread across North America in hay bales first imported from Europe in 1910! Equally this spread could be related to climate change. The photograph labelled as Essex is probably correct, but it is far from the perfect view. A little photographic challenge perhaps?
Photos Robert Maxwell Wood Tina Westcott Peter Bright