Identification of Skippers - Herts & Middx Butterfly Conservation

Identification guide - The 'Skipper' family



Of the eight members of the 'Skipper' family found in Britain - Small, Essex, Large, Lulworth, Silver-spotted, Chequered, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper - only five species are known to occur in our area.

Middlesex and Hertfordshire both have Small Skipper, Essex Skipper and Large Skipper, whereas our only known colonies of Dingy and Grizzled Skipper are limited to Hertfordshire.

This page starts with the three most common - Small, Essex and Large. Although the Large Skipper isn't too hard to identify, the Small and Essex Skippers are so similar, even the most experienced of recorders will tell you it is extremely hard to tell them apart! Guide books and photos will quite happily explain the differences but when confronted with a cloud of skippers on a hot summer day, actually telling them apart is a different matter.

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)
Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)

It was only in 1888 that a butterfly collector realised that the specimen he had caught in Essex was different from the Small Skipper. Although there are several ways of telling them apart as adults, the most significant difference is in their life-cycle. The Small Skipper winters as a caterpillar, the Essex Skipper winters as an egg. As a result of this, the Small Skipper usually emerges about 2 weeks before the Essex. Both of these skippers are extremely fast flying butterflies and never stay still for long, which makes the process of separation very difficult. The only time that identification can be made easier is on a cool day when the butterfly is less active!

Small and Essex Skipper Fact File
Flight Period Small: Mid June to August
Essex: End of June to August
Wingspan Small: 27mm - 34mm
Essex: 26mm - 30 mm
Status in Hertfordshire Common
Status in Middlesex Common
Generations per year One
Larval food plant Grasses such as Yorkshire fog, creeping soft grass, timothy
and wood false brome and cocksfoot
Favourite Nectar plants Many wild flowers including fleabane and ragwort
Favourite locations A search of your local rough grassy places should give you a good chance
of seeing both of these species


The photographs used have been compiled from photographs made available to the Branch. Unfortunately, not all show the subtle differences as clearly as we would wish and hopefully as the year progresses new photographs can be substituted.

The late Charles Smith's experiences in recording these two species should be of help to all recorders. He has based his computerised drawings on standard references books and his own personal experience of recording skippers. However, he does point out that some of the 'differences' may be only local. Additional information has been taken from Herts & Middx Branch Newsletter - Issue 11 Sept '97 Small & Essex Skippers page 4 by John Murray. Records are always welcome even if you are unable to tell them apart - simply refer to them as Small/Essex Skipper!

  • The most reliable method of identifying Small and Essex is to look below the antennal tips. This area will be jet black on Essex Skipper, and orange or brown on Small Skipper. However, care is needed because a few will show very dark brown undertips, whilst others have confusing amounts of black on top of their antennae.
  • The small black streak on the upperside of the forewings of males known as the scent line is much bolder in the Small Skipper and lies at a slight angle to the front edge of the wing. The Essex Skipper has a finer line, which is parallel to the front edge of the forewing - unfortunately this only applies to males.
  • Generally Essex Skippers are supposed to be a little smaller, but since there is an overlap in size this is not a good way to tell them apart.
  • The wings of Essex Skipper appear squarer to some people, with more pointed fore wings.
  • The Essex Skipper has lighter, greener undersides to its hind wings.
  • In mixed groups the Essex Skipper appears to be a brighter colour on top, but Charles comments that this may be due to this species emerging later and being fresher when compared
  • In the Small Skipper, the triangular tip to the underside of the forewing is a contrasting pale olive buff colour, whereas the rest of the underwing is orange. In the Essex Skipper the distinct olive buff tip of the forewing is more or less absent with the whole underside of the wing being a rather uniform orange. However, Charles points out that some Essex Skippers also have a smaller area of dull brown along the edge of the wing!

Click on images to enlarge

Large Skipper

Small Skipper

Essex Skipper

Large Skipper

Small Skipper

Essex Skipper antennae

Large Skipper is a larger butterfly and more heavily marked
© photo: Andrew Middleton

Small Skipper male scent mark is generally thicker than Essex. The antennae tips appear more orange when image enlarged
© photo: Sandra Standbridge

Essex Skipper is a slightly brighter colour The antennae tips appears darker when image enlarged
© photo: Lee Browne

Small Skipper showing antennae

The underside of the Small Skipper antennae is clearly visible in this image (left)
© photo: Trevor Chapman

Large Skipper underside

Small Skipper underside

Essex Skipper underside

Large Skipper's markings show through its underwing
© photo: Sandra Standbridge
Small Skipper shows clearly the triangular tip of the forewing is a pale olive buff colour
© photo: Andrew Middleton
Essex Skipper forewings are more square and have lighter, greener undersides to hind wing
© photo: Lee Browne

Large Skipper

Small Skipper

Essex Skipper

Charles Smith's exaggerated computer images help show the differences
All images © Charles Smith
Small Skipper thicker scent line, lighter colour, hindwing less green, less pointed forewing, the tip of the antennae is black below Essex Skipper thinner scent line, darker colour, hindwing greener, squarer forewing, no olive buff tip to forewing, underside of antennae tips are jet black

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)

The Large Skipper is not dissimilar to the Essex and Small Skipper, but can be easily identified - there is rarely any confusion between the species, when the butterfly is not flying. The Large Skipper usually appears ahead of Small and Essex although their flight periods then overlap, and as the name suggests, it is visibly larger. It is a bright orange brown in colour and the wings have a lovely pattern of paler marks. The Large Skipper can behave in a slightly different way to the Small and Essex, in that it is more often found basking in the sun, taking a prominent position on a bramble perhaps, and is prepared to stay still for longer! The Large Skipper tends to stay closer to the edge of fields or along a hedgeline, whereas the Small and Essex Skippers will just as often be found out in the middle of a grassy field.

Large Skipper Fact File
Flight Period End of May to August
Wingspan 35mm
Status in Hertfordshire Widespread but usually in lower numbers than Small or Essex Skippers
Status in Middlesex Well distributed but usually in lower numbers than Small or Essex Skippers
Generations per year One
Larval food plant Broad-leaved grasses such as cocksfoot and the larger fescues
Favourite Nectar plants Many wild flowers, but especially scabious, bramble and knapweed
Favourite locations A search of brambles and other low vegetation along your local field edges and
sheltered hedgerows, adjacent to rough grassy places, should eventually result in
a sighting

Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages)

This rare skipper is only found in Hertfordshire and there are no known sites in Middlesex. The butterfly is almost moth-like in behaviour and flight, and also likes basking on bare or stony ground with its wings spread flat out. However, when roosting the butterfly will hold its wings flat over its body in a moth like manner. There are several day-flying moths that can be a problem when locating and identifying Dingy Skipper including Mother Shipton, Burnet Companion and Common Heath (see photo under Grizzled Skipper).

Dingy Skipper 2005 - Lee Browne

Burnet Companion 2005 - Andrew Wood

Mother Shipton 2004 - Sandra Standbridge

Dingy Skipper
Erynnis tages
© photo: Lee Browne

Burnet Companion moth
Euclidia glyphic
© photo: Andrew Wood

Mother Shipton moth
Callistege mi
© photo: Sandra Sandbridge

Dingy Skipper Fact File
Flight Period End of April to mid June (this varies with the season's weather)
Wingspan 25mm
Status in Hertfordshire Only a few known sites
Status in Middlesex No known sites
Generations per year One
Larval food plant Bird's foot trefoil
Favourite Nectar plants Spring flowers
Favourite locations Chalk downlands and flowery woodland clearings
Where to see them - Hertfordshire
Sites with known public access
Aldbury Nowers, Hexton Chalk Pits and Bovingdon Brickworks

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae)

This small fast flying butterfly is only known to be found in Hertfordshire at a few sites. The Grizzled Skipper although our rarest skipper is relatively easy to identify, although a few day-flying moths can also cause problems. Mother Shipton (see photo above with Dingy Skipper), Latticed Heath and Common Heath are notorious! The main problem is that the butterfly is so small and fast that it is sometimes impossible to follow especially on the old pits at Waterford Heath!

On a sunny day, the butterfly can be found basking on stony or bare ground with its wings spread out, or nectaring on low-growing flowers, but in dull weather, the wings are closed together over its back. They can be observed roosting on seed heads at the beginning or at the end of the day or during dull or wet weather.

Grizzled Skipper 2003 - Allen Beechey

Common Heath 2003 - Trevor Chapman

Latticed Heath 2005 - Andrew Wood

Grizzled Skipper
Pyrgus malvae
© photo: Allen Beechey

Common Heath
Ematurga atomaria
© photo: Trevor Chapman

Latticed Heath
Semiothisa clathrata
© photo: Andrew Wood

Grizzled Skipper Fact File
Flight Period Mid April to mid June (this varies depending on the season's weather)
Wingspan 28mm
Status in Hertfordshire Only a few known sites
Status in Middlesex No known sites
Generations per year One
Larval food plant Wild potentillas such as common agrimony, wild strawberry, creeping cinquefoil and tormenteil.
Blackberry is also known to used by the more mature larvae
Favourite Nectar plants Spring flowers including wild strawberry, celandine and forget-me-knot
Favourite locations Sheltered bare or stony ground
Where to see them - Hertfordshire
Sites with known public access
Aldbury Nowers, Waterford Heath (north & south pits)

Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma)

Silver-spotted Skipper is one of Britain's rarest butterflies and is now restricted to only a few areas of chalk downland in Southern England.

The last Hertfordshire records were from Therfield Heath in 1959 ('The Butterflies of Hertfordshire'by Brian Sawford). In 2016 there was report with photograph of an individual in a Tring garden

Silver-spotted Skipper 2005 - Steve Lane

Silver-spotted Skipper 2004 - Sandra Standbridge

© photo: Steve Lane

© photo: Sandra Standbridge