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Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch

Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)


The Small Copper is one of our most beautiful small butterflies (wingspan 26-36 mm). The females are larger with less pointed forewings, but in general both sexes are similar in appearance, with black-spotted fiery copper forewings and black hindwings trimmed with a blaze of orange. The hindwings may occasionally have a row of metallic blue spots (form caeruleopunctata). The hind underwings are silvery-beige with black spots, while the underside of the forewing is a paler version of the upper surface. The Small Copper is an active little butterfly that spends a lot of time basking in the sunshine.

On rare occasions, individuals with silver/pale blue forewings in which the orange colouration is completely absent may be found - sub species alba - and one was seen at North Connel, Argyll in 2006.

Credit: Scott Shanks
Credit: Jim Black
Credit: Jim Black

Life Cycle

The Small Copper has two broods per year in South West Scotland. The adults emerge from mid May and quickly set off forming territories and finding mates. Males are very territorial and will aggressively chase any other butterfly that comes into their domain. If a female flies past, the male will follow and settle next to her with wings vibrating which marks the onset of courtship. The white flattened golf ball-like eggs are laid singly on Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Sheepís Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius). The first brood of green purple-striped caterpillars feed rapidly on the underside of the food plant, forming small window-like patches on the leaf, before forming a pale brown pupa in the leaf litter on a silken pad. Itís thought that the chrysalis may be attractive to ants, but surprisingly little is known about this stage of development in the wild.

The second generation emerges in August and is generally larger than the first and the caterpillars from this generation go into hibernation in the leaf litter before awakening to feed again in spring.

Flight Times

In South West Scotland the Small Copper can be seen on the wing from mid May to early October, with two distinct peaks between late May and mid June, and again with larger numbers in the later broods between early August and mid September.

Habitat & Distribution in SW Scotland

Distribution map 2010

The Small Copper can be found in a wide range of habitats including meadows, rough pasture, railway embankments, urban wasteland, along the edges of streams and rivers, woodland rides, conifer plantations, sea cliffs, sand-dunes, roadsides and gardens.

Therefore the Small Copper is widely distributed in South West Scotland, frequenting habitat with sparse vegetation and bare patches in full sunshine where it can bask. It does seem to require warmer micro-climates to survive in Scotland with few being recorded in NW Scotland. It can frequently be found at sandy coastal habitats or in urban locations, where it will bask on stony paths or on bare waste ground. The adults have a preference for nectaring at small flowered composites such as ragworts or daisies. Gardens with many daisy-like flowers can attract Small Coppers to visit. The abundance of the Small Copper can be quite variable with many more seen during hot dry summers, and populations crashing in cold wet years. Grassy banks with rabbits and nearby patches of sorrel or sheepís sorrel are good places to look for this fiery little gem.

The Small Copper was more abundant in the early 20th century as were other species and has undoubtedly been adversely affected by the destruction of semi-natural grassland - it is scarce or absent in parts of eastern England for example where arable farming is dominant. It is also the case that in cooler duller summers, colonies in shadier locations such as woodland rides may die out and be recolonised in warmer summers from stronger colonies in sunnier and warmer locations.


  • 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., Warren, M. 2006. The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Pisces Publications.
  • South, R. 1921. The Butterflies of the British Isles. Frederick Warne Ltd, London.
  • Tomlinson, D. & Still, R. 2002. Britainís Butterflies. WILDGuides
  • Thomson, G. 1982. The Butterflies of Scotland. Croom Helm London.

Written by Scott Shanks & Andrew Masterman

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