• Grayling (underwing)
    Grayling (underwing)
  • Grayling (male & female)
    Grayling (male & female)
  • Grayling (caterpillar)
    Grayling (caterpillar)
  • Grayling (underwing)
    Grayling (underwing)
  • Grayling (male & female)
    Grayling (male & female)
  • Grayling (caterpillar)
    Grayling (caterpillar)

Scientific name: Hipparchia semele

The Grayling is the largest and most unmistakable of the Brown family. It always rests with its wings closed, with only the underneath of the mottled brown hind wings visible.

When the forewings are tucked behind the hind wings, the eye spots are concealed, making the butterfly appear smaller, but they can be seen if the butterfly is disturbed, or when it first lands. It appears larger in flight, when its pale yellow-orange bands can be seen during its distinctive looping and gliding flight.

Cryptic colouring provides the Grayling with excellent camouflage, making it difficult to see when at rest on bare ground, tree trunks, or stones, particularly when it leans edge on to the sun - it regulates its temperature by tilting its wings at different angles to the sun. The territorial male is seen more often than the female, which is most often seen when laying eggs.

Eggs are laid singly, either on isolated foodplants or on the ground in debris.The eggs are white when laid, slowly turning to a pale yellow. This stage of the lifecycle lasts two to three weeks.

On emerging, the caterpillar eats the tender tips of the foodplant. It hibernates in a grass tussock during the third of its five instars (stages of development). It changes in appearance during these stages from off-white to light brown to pale yellow in colour, with a small head and brown, yellow and white stripes along its body.

The caterpillar pupates for around four months buried just below the soil's surface. The chrysalis is reddish-brown in colour.

The Grayling is widespread on the coast and southern heaths of Britain and Ireland, but is declining in many areas, particularly inland. 

Size and Family

  • Family: Browns
  • Size: Medium/Large
  • Wing Span Range (male to female): 55-60mm

Conservation Status

  • Section 41 species of principal importance under the NERC Act in England
  • Section 42 species of principal importance under the NERC Act in Wales
  • Scottish Biodiversity List
  • Northern Ireland Priority Species 
  • UK BAP status: Priority Species   
  • Butterfly Conservation priority: High                          
  • European status: Not threatened

Caterpillar Foodplants

The main species used include Sheep's-fescue (Festuca ovina), Red Fescue (F. rubra), Bristle Bent (Agrostis curtisii), and Early Hair-grass (Aira praecox). Coarser grasses such as Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and Marram (Ammophila arenaria) are occasionally used.



Many colonies occur on coastal habitats such as; dunes, saltmarsh, undercliffs and clifftops.

There are inland colonies on habitats including; dry heathland, chalk grassland, old quarries, earthworks, derelict industrial sites - such as old spoil heaps and very occasionally in open woodland on stony ground.

It is important that the soils are dry and well-drained, with sparse vegetation and plenty of bare ground in open positions.


  • Countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland
  • Throughout Britain and Ireland, but mainly on coastal sites
  • Distribution Trend Since 1970’s: -45%


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