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Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch


Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)

Description

The Essex Skipper is the most recent of the two golden-orange skippers to arrive in South West Scotland in recent years. It is an active little butterfly with a rapid buzzing flight and golden-orange wings (Wingspan 26-30 mm) that are held in the distinctive skipper posture when at rest. The sexes are similar, but the male has a dark band of pheromone scales on their forewings known as the sex brand. The Essex Skipper is in fact slightly smaller than its close relative the Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris). Both Skipper species are similar in appearance, but the Essex Skipper has black tips to its antenna, while those of the Small Skipper are dark brown or orange. The Small Skipper and the Essex Skipper have only recently expanded their range into South West Scotland, arriving 2006 and 2008 respectively. Both species seem to be responding positively to changes in climate and land use by spreading northwards.

Credit: Jim Black
Credit: Keith Warmington
Credit: Jim Black

Life Cycle

After emerging in July, the males set about forming territories near long uncut grasses and finding mates. Much of the rest of the time is spent nectaring and basking in the sun. Females tend to be quite sedentary and make slow deliberate egg-laying flights. One brood is produced each year. The pale yellow lozenge-shaped eggs are laid during July on the leaf sheafs of a range of grasses with Cocksfoot Dactylis glomerata being the preferred species but Creeping Soft-grass Holcus mollis, Comon Couch Elytrigia repens, Timothy Phleum pratense & Meadow Foxtail Alopecurus pratensis and other species may be used. The eggs do not hatch even though the caterpillar is fully formed inside but remain in this dormant state during the rest of the year and over winter. In the spring, the eggs finally hatch and the caterpillar spins the edges of a leaf together to form a protective tube in which it feeds mainly on the grass tips. The fully grown caterpillar is about 25 mm long and is pale green with a dark stripe along the back, pale stripes on the sides and three brown stripes on the head. Pupation occurs in a silk tent of folded leaves at the base of foodplants and the chrysalis is green with a white point at each end. Adults emerge in July.

Flight Times

There haven’t been enough records yet in South West Scotland to accurately determine flight periods in our branch area, but the few known sightings have been in late July and early August. In England adults can be found on the wing from late July through to early September, with a peak in numbers in late July and early August.

Habitat & Distribution in SW Scotland

Distribution for 2007-2010

Essex Skipper colonies may potentially be found wherever grasses are allowed to grow tall. It is very similar to the Small Skipper and in fact wasn’t recognised as a separate species in Britain until 1889. In the South of England it is a widespread and relatively common species, often found in the same locations as the Small Skipper, such as dry grasslands, downs, roadside verges, field margins, sunny rides and coastal marshes. Some colonies can be quite large, but even small areas of suitable habitat may support a small colony. Essex Skippers will nectar from a wide range of plant species including knapweed, thistles, clovers and birds-foot trefoil, but individuals tend to look for flowers of the same species or similar flower structure from what they’ve fed on before.

The Essex Skipper is currently undergoing a dramatic northwards range expansion in Britain, although its appearance in South West Scotland in 2007 was quite unexpected. There are eight records in 2007, two in 2008 and one in 2009 relating to five 1 km squares near Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway. There are no records of Essex Skipper in the East of Scotland Branch area. While the distribution of the Essex Skipper is expanding rapidly northwards probably as a result of climate warming, the nearest colonies are 150 km away in south Yorkshire so its arrival in Scotland is most unlikely to be natural spread. It is more likely to be the result of accidental transport northwards such as a pupa in hay in a horse box or something similar.

One quite exotic theory which has been mooted is that the introduction of the Essex Skipper to Scotland is linked to the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak. Six of the eleven Essex Skipper records are from Birkenshaw Forest which was a mass animal burial site following the 2001 Foot & Mouth outbreak. After the burial of up to 500,000 carcasses, soil was apparently brought in to cover the 6 burial pits and to restore the site and Essex Skipper may have been accidentally introduced as a result.

References

  • Futter, K., Sutcliffe, R., Welham, D., Welham, A., Rostron, A., MacKay, J., Gregory, N., McCleary, J., Tait, T., Black, J. & Kirkland, P. 2006. Butterflies of South West Scotland. Argyll Publishing. (see Atlas page)
  • Asher, J., Warren, M, Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G., Jeffcoate, S. 2001. The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain & Ireland. Oxford University Press.
  • Fox, R., Asher, J. Brereton, T., Roy, D. and Warren, M. 2006. The state of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Pisces Publications.
  • Sutcliffe, R. 2009. Recent changes in the distribution of some Scottish butterflies and the arrival of new species in Scotland. The Glasgow Naturalist Volume 25, Part 2, 5-12

Written by Scott Shanks & Andrew Masterman


 
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