Butterflies of Britain
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
subfamily - SATYRINAE
Tribe - SATYRINI
subtribe - SATYRINA
Hipparchia semele, female, Arnside
Knott, Cumbria ©
There are 27
Hipparchia species, distributed variously across Europe, Asia
and North Africa.
The uppersides of all species are
dark earthy brown with prominent ocelli on the forewings in spaces 2
and 5, set within broad orange or brownish-white bands. When freshly
emerged they often have a metallic greenish sheen along the costa.
The underside hindwings are cryptically patterned with dark zig-zag
lines and striations, and in most species there is a white band
corresponding to that on the upperside.
The Grayling is distributed across much of
Europe, but is absent from Greece, northern Scandinavia and most of
the Mediterranean islands. On Corsica it is replaced by the endemic
neomiris, and on Crete by
cretica. The very similar
aristaeus occurs on Sardinia,
Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia,
Sicily and Greece. Another species with which the
Grayling can easily be confused is pellucida,
but that is restricted to Turkey, Cyprus and parts of the Middle
Hipparchia semele, male, Wareham Heath,
The Grayling breeds at sun-baked, well drained sites where sheep's
fescue or marram grass grow sparsely on otherwise bare ground. In
Britain it is primarily a coastal species found on sand dunes,
shingle banks, cliffs, undercliffs, limestone pavement and chalk /
It also occurs up to about 20m ( 35km ) inland on dry heathland and
moorland habitats in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and
East Anglia, but has contracted it's range during the last 50 years,
become increasingly coastal. On heathlands it occurs mainly along
fire breaks or in areas where controlled burning has created a dry
grassy habitat with extensive areas of bare ground.
Most Grayling colonies are small, probably numbering less than 20
adults on the peak day of the flight season. There are a few large
expanses of dry heathland where the butterfly can be found in
hundreds or even thousands, but these are generally comprised of a
large number of much smaller colonies which exist in a mosaic of dry
/ humid heaths, bogs and forested areas.
Graylings emerge in July and
lay their eggs singly on the stems and blades of fine grasses,
typically selecting little tufts growing in sunlit depressions, in
areas where the grasses grow sparsely amidst extensive areas of bare
ground. Sheep's fescue grass Festuca ovina
is used on chalk or limestone habitats, bristle bent
Agrostis setacea on heathland, and
marram Ammophila araenaria on sand
dunes. A much wider range of grass species is used in continental
larva hatches after about 2-3 weeks. Like most Satyrine larvae it
feeds nocturnally, and during daytime it hides away at the base of a
grass clump. It hibernates from September to March when it resumes
feeding, and becomes fully grown in late May or early June.
mature larva is a dull yellowish brown colour, with whitish-edged
dark stripes along the back and sides. When ready to pupate it
wanders a short distance and burrows just beneath the surface of the
soil, where the change to the pupa takes place.
pupa is reddish brown, shiny and smooth, with a hooked abdomen. It
is formed among soil just below the surface of the ground, in a
silk-lined cell. The pupal stage lasts for about 3 - 4 weeks.
Hipparchia semele, perfectly disguised at rest on dead wood,
The marbled underside wings are a
superb example of disruptive patterning, enabling the butterfly to
blend perfectly into a variety of different environments.
butterfly spends long periods at rest, and is
equally well concealed when resting
on tree trunks, bare earth, shingle or rocks.
disturbed, Graylings take flight instantly, twisting and looping
rapidly, just above the ground, before re-settling nearby on bare
earth or on a tree trunk or fallen branch. When settling at ground
level they usually rest on a pale object such as a stone or a piece of
landing they snap their wings shut, but raise the forewings so that
the eyespot near the apex is visible. This way, any bird which spots
where a butterfly has landed, and attacks, is likely to aim at the
eyespot rather than at the body. Once the Grayling feels safe, it
lowers the forewing to hide the eyespot behind the hindwing.
Overnight or in poor weather the butterflies roost in trees or bushes.
At Arnside Knott in Cumbria I have often watched Graylings flying down
from treetops early in the morning, settling on limestone scree below.
Upon settling they tilt over to present the maximum area of wing
surface to the sun, which quickly raises their body temperature. This
enables them to maintain high energy levels, and remain alert at all
times, instantly ready to fly up and intercept potential mates. In hot
conditions they tilt their wings in the opposite direction to avoid
over-heating, by minimising the amount of sunlight hitting the wings.
This form of thermoregulation is commonly known as tilt-basking.
Hipparchia semele, male, Silchester
Common, Hampshire ©
Favourite nectar sources include
bell heather and cross leaved heath. Graylings often settle
head-downwards when nectaring at these plants, enabling them to reach
into the drooping flowers with their proboscises. When feeding at
other flowers e.g. marjoram, hemp agrimony, valerian, thistles or
bramble they settle conventionally. As well as feeding at flowers,
both sexes commonly imbibe sap from pine trunks at heathland sites,
and from ash trunks at calcareous habitats.
Hipparchia semele male, Arnside Knott,
Hipparchia semele Arnside Knott, Cumbria ©
Hipparchia semele, male, Arnside Knott, Cumbria ©
Graylings do not normally open their wings when settled, but copulated
females will do so briefly if approached by a second intruding male.
At such times the wings are held half open or fully open for 3 or 4
seconds, displaying the richly coloured upperside and prominent
Normally the butterflies rest at ground level, but at some sites they
prefer to settle on tree trunks, and at sites in northern and western
England they habitually settle on dry-stone walls. In July 2007 at
Wareham Heath I found a male settled on a log. Every time I
approached, it flew up, then circled around me and resettled on the
same log. This behaviour is typical of territorial species and indeed
there have been many occasions when I've observed males in combat. In
July 2009 at Arnside e.g. I watched a long battle in which a pair of
spiralled up to a height
of about 2 metres, chasing each other rapidly in tight circles until
the intruding male was driven off.
such territorial behaviour, male Graylings do sometimes share their
territories - on a cloudy day in July 2012 for example I found a patch
of limestone scree at Arnside Knott on which well over 40 Graylings
were tilt-basking in close proximity.
Hipparchia semele, mating pair, Aish Tor,
Dartmoor, Devon ©
Hipparchia semele, male, Arnside Knott, Cumbria ©
account of the courtship ritual is adapted from a paper by
When a male
intercepts a female the pair quickly settle on the ground,
either among grasses or on rocks or fallen branches. The male
lands behind the female, and then walks around her until they
are facing each other. If the female has already been mated
she signals her unwillingness to copulate by fluttering her
wings. On the other hand if she is a virgin she remains
stationary and the male flicks his forewings upwards to
display the ocellus at the apex. A moment later he begins his
full display, flicking his wings open and shut several times
in rapid succession. He then fully opens his rapidly vibrating
wings while leaning forward, as if bowing to the female. Next
he slowly closes his wings, trapping the female's antennae
between them, and "combing" them with his forewings so that
her antennae are rubbed against the androconia on the
upperside of his forewings. This effectively seduces the
female. The male then quickly walks around her until he is
alongside, but slightly behind her, allowing him to curve his
abdomen forward to make sexual contact. Once copulated he then
straightens up so the pair face away from each other.