Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

GenusAglais (1)
SizeWingspan: 4.5-5 cm (1)

This widespread and common species is not threatened. It is not listed under any conservation designations.

The small tortoiseshell is one of the most widespread and familiar butterflies in Britain (2). Its beautiful patterning, comprising of black patches, areas of bright yellowish-orange and a fringe of blue spots around both the hind and forewings, makes this species instantly recognisable. The sexes are similar in appearance (1). The caterpillar, which reaches 22 mm in length, has a black head, a largely black body with tiny white spots, and black or yellowish spines on the back and sides. Along each side there are two broken yellow bands, below which the body becomes more purplish-brown in colour (3).

This resident butterfly has a wide distribution, and is common throughout Britain. Elsewhere it is widespread in Europe, and reaches as far east as the Pacific coast of Asia (2).

The caterpillars feed on common nettle (Urtica dioica) and small nettle (U. urens), which thrive in nutrient-enriched soils, and are therefore often associated with human activity. As a result, the small tortoiseshell inhabits a huge range of habitats, wherever the foodplants occur (2).

In most areas of Britain, there are typically two generations each year, but in Scotland there is usually just one. Adults that have hibernated through the winter emerge in March or April; the small tortoiseshell is therefore one of the first butterflies to be seen each spring (2). Females lay eggs in batches underneath the leaves of the foodplants (2). The eggs hatch after around 10 days, and the caterpillars live in groups protected by a silk web. After the final moult the caterpillars disperse, and pupate hanging from plant stems or other objects (3). The adults emerge after around two weeks (3); adults of the second generation hibernate in buildings, caves and hollow trees (2), and reproduce the following spring (3).

The small tortoiseshell butterfly is not currently threatened.

No conservation action is targeted at this common and widespread species.

For more on this species see: The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Europe (2001). By Asher, J., et al. Published by Oxford University Press.

For more on butterflies and their conservation see the Butterfly Conservation website:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. Carter, D. (1992) Butterflies and moths. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  2. Asher, J., Warren, M., Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G. and Jeffcoate, S. (2001) The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Carter, D. and Hargreaves, B. (1986) A field guide to caterpillars of butterflies and moths in Britain and Europe. William Collins and Sons Ltd, London.