Two brown and orange butterflies on a purple flower

Small Heaths. Photo: Shona Refoy.

A delightful small butterfly which may be seen across several months.

Where to see

Habitat: Can be found in a wide range of habitats, as long as fine-leaved grasses are present. Chalk/limestone downs are good sites in Dorset, but also road verges, woodland rides, hedgerows and heath.

Caterpillar foodplants: Fine-leaved grasses, especially Sheep's-fescue.

Best places: Widespread.

Reported from the following locations last year*:

When to see

Two broods, the first starting in May and peaking in June, going through into July, and the second emerging in August and going through to September in smaller numbers.

Sightings by month (last 5 years)*:

Sightings this year*:


Notes

Size: small.

A quick glimpse of a small pale orangey brown butterfly should make you think Small Heath or Small Copper, but when they settle the difference is very plain. Female Blues are brown, but all are of a much darker shade. If you are on heathland, beware confusing it with the Common Heath moth, which looks similar in flight, though not at rest.

The Small Heath is like a miniature Gatekeeper, though the orange is paler. Size is the easy identifier.

Males compete strongly for females, and will gather around certain bushes and trees, where they fight for possession of the best perches on which to await females. The females will come to these places to find a male with which to mate, but will then go to find suitable places to lay eggs, seeking them with short, fluttery flights.

Males are usually smaller and brighter than the female but there is little other difference: the basic colour is quite variable in both.

They always land with their wings closed, so look for a browny-grey hind wing and an orange forewing with a pale edge and a black eyespot surrounded by a pale yellow circle and with a small white dot in the centre. They will show the forewing when they first land, so any bird coming after them will peck at this, rather than at their body; if no threat is sensed it will fold their forewing down to conceal the eyespot.  When the forewing is not exposed they are well camouflaged, and you usually find them by disturbing them.

The Small Heath never opens its wings, which is why there is no photo of the upperwings here.

Photo gallery

Click thumbnails to view larger images.

*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.