Butterflies of Britain
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
subfamily - SATYRINAE
Tribe - SATYRINI
subtribe - MANIOLINA
Pyronia tithonus male, Waterperry
Wood, Oxfordshire ©
Gatekeeper is also known by the name Hedge Brown, and at various
stages in history has been called 'Small Meadow Brown', 'Hedge Eye'
and 'Large Heath' - the latter name now being applied to a different
species Coenonympha tullia. For more
British vernacular names.
This is a very common and widespread butterfly which is distributed
throughout much of Europe but is absent from Scotland, Scandinavia
and southern Italy. It is found in the Pyrenees, but is absent from
the Alps, and from most Mediterranean islands. Beyond Europe it
occurs in the Rif mountains of Morocco, and in western Turkey.
Male Gatekeepers have a
prominent band of dark androconial scales running diagonally across
the forewings, and are noticeably smaller than the females. Neither
sex are prone to much variation in colour or patterning, although
there can sometimes be a small third ocellus below the usual pair on
male ab multiocellata ( note additional
spots on forewings ) ©
Gatekeeper cannot be mistaken for any other British species, but
both sexes are similar on the upperside to the Southern Gatekeeper
P. cecilia, which occurs in Spain,
Portugal, southern France, Italy and north Africa. The underside
hindwings of the latter species are quite different, being dark
brown, heavily mottled and striated with white.
In southern England Gatekeepers can be
found almost anywhere where grasses grow in association with bushes.
They can be extremely common on scrubby grassland, in woodland
clearings, scrubby heathland, sand dunes, and along railway
cuttings, hedgerows and country lanes, always favouring sheltered
sunny situations. In northern Britain however the butterfly is very
rare. This pronounced north-south divide is probably controlled by
the need for larvae to develop quickly during the spring and early
summer when night temperatures in southern Britain are higher than
in the north. It is also likely that parasite / host synchrony is
climatically influenced, and this may affect the ability of the
species to survive in northern areas.
has become scarcer in areas where verge mowing, hedge removal and
the misguided and obsessive 'tidying up' of the countryside has
occurred. Nevertheless it is capable of recovering and recolonising
habitats such as overgrown gardens, railway cuttings, quarries, and
regenerating woodland clearings. At Broadmarsh in Hampshire for
example it took about 5 years to colonise and become exceedingly
common at a newly created coastal landfill site, having dispersed
from a nearby large colony at Farlington Marshes.
Pyronia tithonus male, Wilton
Brail, Wiltshire ©
The adults emerge in late June
and July, and lay their eggs singly on grasses growing in sheltered
and sunny positions at the base of hawthorn, bramble and blackthorn
bushes where grasses grow quite tall and ungrazed. The eggs are
spherical with about 16 vertical ridges. They are pale yellow when
first laid, but soon develop irregular brown blotches. They hatch
after about 14 days.
larvae feed nocturnally on various grasses including red fescue
Festuca rubra, meadow grass
Poa pratensis, couch
Agropyron repens, and bristle bent
Agrostis setacea, eating only the
finest leaf blades. In daytime they hide head-downwards at the base
of grass tussocks. They enter hibernation in September when quite
small, and re-awaken in March or April, feeding slowly and achieving
full growth by late May or early June. The mature larva is dull
greyish olive or sometimes a dirty buff colour, with a dark line
along the back and thinner dark lines along the sides.
chrysalis is a pale straw colour, marked on the wing cases and
thorax with blackish streaks. It hangs by the cremaster, with the
shrivelled larval skin still attached, from twigs or dry grass stems
at the base of bushes. The pupal stage lasts about 2 weeks.
overcast conditions, or in hazy sunshine, Gatekeepers bask on the
foliage of bracken, bramble and other low vegetation. During sunny
weather they flit from flower to flower, nectaring for a few seconds
at a time at privet, bramble, dogwood, ragwort, fleabane, hemp
agrimony, marjoram and various other plants.
Pyronia tithonus, female, Stockbridge
Down, Hampshire ©
place without any observed courtship ritual, and lasts for about an
hour, during which the butterflies remain stationary with their wings