Brown butterfly seen from the side; hind upperwing in shades of brown with glimpse of eyespot on upperwing

Grayling. Photo: Ken Dolbear.

One of our best camouflaged butterflies.

Where to see

Habitat: The Grayling needs a dry, well-drained area with lots of open patches: you will not find it in areas of heavy vegetation. It likes coastal undercliffs and sand dunes, dry heath and chalk/limestone grassland and within these habitats, places that provide open patches: earthworks, quarries, pathways and tracks. It lives in colonies. Unfortunately in Dorset it has disappeared from chalk and limestone areas except for a few on the coast.

Caterpillar foodplants: A range of native fine grasses, depending on the soil type. Includes Bristle Bent (acid heath), Sheep's Fescue (chalk/limestone) and Marram (coast/dunes).

Best places: Not found in huge numbers anywhere, and not really seen in the north of the County, where it has disappeared from its old haunts on the chalk downs. On Portland it will be seen at Tout Quarry, near Poole it is found at Upton Heath. Purbeck is a good place to look for it: Studland, Wareham Forest, Morden Bog, Stoborough Heath and Higher Hyde all record it.

Reported from the following locations last year*:

When to see

Mainly July and August, but possibly seen in the months either side.

Sightings by month (last 5 years)*:

Sightings this year*:


Notes

Size: medium.

The largest of the Browns, though you are only aware of this when it is flying. It has a looping, gliding flight, unlike the other Browns and more like the Vanessids.

This is a butterfly often easiest to identify by its behaviour: if you are walking in suitable habitat and a butterfly keeps landing on the path in front of you, then taking off as you come near and landing again a few yards on, repeatedly, it is probably a Grayling.

When the sun is hot, the Grayling regulates its body temperature by sitting with its wings totally closed and their leading edge pointing towards the sun; in this way it can cool down and reduce its shadow to a minimum so it is less visible to predators. Conversely in weak sun the Grayling will sit sideways to the sun’s rays to warm up, and lean over to one side to get the maximum exposure to the heat.

When it lands it quickly conceals its eye spots by tucking the forewings out of sight behind the hind wings. In this way, if any bird spots it immediately as it lands, it will peck at the eye spots which will not be life threatening. If all is well it can settle down safely with the eye spots tucked safely out of sight.

The part of the butterfly you are most likely to be identifying, therefore, is the underside of the hindwing, which has a subtle blend of browns and greys which help it blend in with a number of backgrounds. Look for darker brown coming out from the body and ending in a jagged shape, giving way to a lighter area which then fades to dark again.

If the butterfly does raise its forewing, you will see an eyespot on the top of the wing against a cream background, and there is some orange nearer the body.

Males and females are similar, but you are much more likely to see a male. The male ‘courts’ the female with a courtship dance, first getting in front of her. If the female is receptive she stays still and the male goes through his dance, jerking his wings upwards and forwards, then flicking the forewings open and shut. Finally he holds his forewings open and makes a deep bow to the female. Then he gently folds his wings together, catching the female’s antennae and drawing them through his forewings as he straightens up; this pulls the female’s antennae tips across his scent glands, which is an aphrodisiac to the female, so they then mate.

Graylings do not feed a lot, but if you want to photograph them feeding you need to do so first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon. They use quite a wide range of flowers, but for heath-land colonies Bell Heather is very popular. They are especially attracted by sap oozing out of tree trunks.

Photo gallery

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*Please note: The charts shown on this page are drawn only from casual sightings submitted to this website. Records from this website will be added to a lot more data collected throughout the year and used to compile the five-yearly Butterfly Atlases for Dorset and the UK.