There are fifty eight regular species of butterfly that occur in Britain and one more in Ireland. Of these I have been fortunate to see and photograph fifty three in the UK and two in Corfu so this can be seen as an on-going project. On this page as well as showing my favourite images I am also giving a little bit of information on each species.
The wingspan (ws) of butterflies can be quite variable with the females usually the larger. Flight periods (fp) are dependent on weather, some hibernating species can appear on a warm January day. The food plant (cf) is that of the caterpillar.
To see some species requires travelling as they only occur in certain parts of the country. I strongly recommend the book ‘Discover Butterflies in Britain’ by D.E. Newland isbn 1-90365712-1. And for the perfect read with exquisite life-like paintings ‘The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland’ by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington isbn 978-0-95649-027-8. Both have been inspirational.
HESPERIIDAE The skippers
Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon)
ws 29-31 mm fp May – June cf false brome
This beautiful butterfly became extinct in England in 1976 but was successfully (so far) re-introduced to it’s former heartland of Rockingham Forest in 2018. It can also be found in north/west Scotland where the caterpillar food plant is purple moor-grass.
Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)
ws 27-34 mm fp June – September cf Yorkshire-fog
A common and widespread butterfly in England that favours areas of tall grass with plentiful supply of Yorkshire-fog. The males, like all the ‘golden skippers’, have a distinctive black line on the upper fore-wings this is a sex brand a row of scent cells.
Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
ws 26-30 mm fp June – August cf cock’s-foot, timothy, couch
Very similar to the Small Skipper. The tips of the antenna are entirely black and the sex brand smaller less distinctive. Confined more to the south and east of England but spreading it’s range.
Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon)
ws 24-28 mm fp May – September cf Tor-grass
Restricted to the coast of Dorset between Weymouth and the Isle of Purbeck. The female has a crescent of light orange spots on the forewing. The male is duller and more olive than other golden skippers.
Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma)
ws 29-37 mm fp July – September cf sheep’s fescue
A rare species confined to warm, south facing chalk downs in southern England.
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)
ws 29-36 mm fp May – August cf cock’s-foot, purple moor-grass
The earliest of the golden skippers to emerge. Can be found on verges, woodland rides and meadows across England to southern Scotland.
Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae)
ws 23-29 mm fp April – June cf wild strawberry, agrimony
A declining butterfly of the midlands and south (two small colonies in Norfolk). Can be found on downland, unshaded woodland rides, railway cuttings and waste ground.
Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages)
ws 27-34 mm fp April – June cf bird’s-foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch
An unfortunate name for a pretty little butterfly. The most wide spread of the skippers but it’s numbers are falling. Can be found in a wide range of habitats.
PAPILIONIDAE The swallowtails
Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus)
ws 76-93 mm fp May – July cf milk parsley
The largest and most colourful of the British butterflies and can only be found in areas of the Norfolk Broads.
PIERIDAE The whites and yellows
Wood White (Leptidea sinapis)
ws 42 mm fp May – June cf vetches, bird’s-foot trefoil
A delicate butterfly of woodland rides with a slow floppy flight. Sadly in decline a few colonies exist in the east midlands, Sussex/Surrey, Herefordshire/Shropshire and strangely the Dorset coast.
Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)
ws 52-62 mm fp migrant May – October cf clover, lucerne
This is a migrant species from the Continent in variable numbers. Caterpillars have survived the winter in southern counties. Can turn up almost anywhere.
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)
ws 60-74 mm fp March – June & July – September cf buckthorn
Often the first butterfly seen at the start of the year. They hibernate and will emerge on warm, sunny days even in January! The female is paler and greener/white in colour. Not found in Scotland.
Large White (Pieris brassicae)
ws 58-63 mm fp April – October cf brassicas
The curse of the cabbage grower! Numbers can be boosted by immigrants from the Continent. Not found in parts of north west Scotland.
Small White (Pieris rapae)
ws 38-57 mm fp April – June & July – October cf brassicas and crucifers
Occurs in two, sometime three, broods. Also boosted by immigrants. Very common but again absent from north west Scotland.
Green-veined White (Pieris napi)
ws 40-52 mm fp April – September cf crucifers i.e garlic mustard, lady’s smock
A dainty butterfly. Common and widespread.
Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines)
ws 40-52 mm fp April – June cf garlic mustard, lady’s smock
The herald of spring, forever wandering through woods, gardens and along verges and river banks. The female lacks the orange.
LYCAENIDAE The hairstreaks, coppers and blues
Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)
ws 27-34 mm fp April – May cf rock-rose, bird’s-foot trefoil, gorse, broom, dogwood
Commonest of the hairstreaks and widespread. Found on heath and moor, hillsides and valley bottoms. Males very aggressive. Britain’s only green butterfly.
Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae)
ws 36-45 mm fp July – September cf blackthorn
Largest hairstreak but not easy to find as it spends most of it’s life at the top of ash trees. Mostly located in the south and west.
Purple Hairstreak (Favonius quercus)
ws 31-40 mm fp July – September cf oak
Living almost all their lives in oak trees the Purple Hairstreak rarely comes down to ground level. Best seen in the evening when they have courtship flights.
White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album)
ws 25-35 mm fp June – August cf elm
Usually keeps high in elm trees feeding on aphid honeydew will come to flowers when there is a shortage. Suffered badly when Dutch elm disease struck but is now adapting to other varieties of elm.
Black Hairstreak (Satyrium pruni)
ws 34-40 mm fp June cf blackthorn
A rare butterfly found only in woodlands in a line from Oxford to Peterborough and a recently discovered colony in Sussex. It has a very short flight period of just two to three weeks.
Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
ws 26-36 mm fp May & July – August cf sorrel
Widespread where it’s food plant grows but not the north of Scotland. Can have up to four broods in a year if the weather is favourable so can be seen as late as October.
Small Blue (Cupido minimus)
ws 16-25 mm fp May – June & July – August cf kidney vetch
Britain’s smallest butterfly. Widespread but rare and declining, stronghold in Cotswolds and Dorset. Prefers old quarries and warm embankments.
Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus)
ws 26-31 mm fp June – August cf heather, bird’s-foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch, rock-rose
A beautiful species of some southern and eastern heaths, also has colonies in rocky places i.e Portland Dorset and Great Orme nth Wales. The name derives from the metallic marks in the outer row of black spots on the underwing. The females, like most blues, have brown upperwings edged with orange spots.
Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)
ws 25-31 mm fp May – June & July – September cf rock-rose, crane’s-bill
From Yorkshire south but not mid Wales. Double brooded. Can be mistaken for females of other species of blue. Best i.d feature being the two spots top centre of the under hind wing form a figure of eight.
Northern Brown Argus (Aricia artaxerxes)
ws 26-35 mm fp June – August cf rock-rose
Only found in the north of England and Scotland. It has a single brood. Favoured habitat is south facing limestone hills with short vegetation. It has less defined spotting on the underwings. In Scotland they have a white spot in the centre of the upper fore wings.
Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)
ws 29-36 mm fp May – June & July – September cf bird’s-foot trefoil, lesser trefoil
As the name suggests this is the most numerous and widespread of the blues. The females can show a large amount of blue on the brown upperwings.
Chalkhill Blue (Lysandra coridon)
ws 33-40 mm fp July – September cf horseshoe vetch
True to it’s name this is a butterfly of southern chalk downs. In good years whole hillsides shimmer with the milky blue coloured males looking for mates.
Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus)
ws 30-40 mm fp May – June & August – September cf horseshoe vetch
This stunning electric sky blue butterfly almost faced extinction. Luckily it was saved by great conservation work. Restricted to southern chalk downs.
Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)
ws 26-34 mm fp April – June & July – September cf holly, ivy
The earliest blue on the wing. Common and widespread in England and Wales, very rare in Scotland.
RIODINIDAE The metalmarks
Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)
ws 29-34 mm fp April – June cf cowslip, primrose
Once classed as a fritillary this small butterfly is rapidly declining and is now quite rare. It’s stronghold is the Cotswolds but has small isolated colonies in Cumbria and Yorkshire. This used to be a woodland species but now has adapted to scrubby grassland.
NYMPHALIDAE The brush-footed butterflies
White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)
ws 56-66 mm fp June – August cf honeysuckle
A beautiful butterfly of woodland rides and glades with a long gliding flight. Found in eastern and southern Britain.
Purple Emperor (Apatura iris)
ws 70-92 mm fp June – July cf sallow
His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the woods. A butterfly of once near mythical status due to a lifestyle in the tree tops of dense woodland. It will, early in it’s flight season, come to ground on rides seeking minerals. The Emperor does not nectar on flowers but will feast on dead animals and excrement! The purple sheen is only visible when the light catches it right.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
ws 64-78 mm fp April – November cf nettle
Until recently the Red Admiral was just a migrant to Britain however some now over winter in hibernation. In the autumn they like to feed on ripe fruit. Can be seen anywhere.
Painted Lady ( Vanessa cardui)
ws 58-74 mm fp migrant spring-autumn cf thistle
Sometimes occurs in huge numbers, other years hardly any. Originates from nth Africa and spreads northwards stopping to breed then the young continue the journey.
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
ws 45-62 mm fp spring – late summer cf nettle
A very familiar visitor to gardens over the whole country. This species also hibernates
Peacock (Aglais io)
ws 63-75 mm fp early spring – late summer cf nettle
Another of the hibernators which can be seen everywhere except in mountainous areas. The males in spring are very territorial.
Comma (Polygonia c-album)
ws 50-64 mm fp early spring – late summer cf nettle, hop, sallow
A very distinctive butterfly with excellent camouflage as a dead leaf which helps it survive hibernation. Absent from most of Scotland, found near wooded areas.
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene)
ws 35-44 mm fp May – July cf violets
Restricted to the west country, Wales and most of Scotland (odd colonies elsewhere in the south) and prefers damp clearings in woodland and bracken covered hillsides. Declining in England due to habitat loss.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne)
ws 38-47 mm fp April – June cf violets
Sadly in great decline with isolated colonies in the south, west and north west but more in Scotland. It relies on clearings and coppiced woodland which is becoming a rare habitat. The first fritillary to emerge and a lovely sight as they criss-cross their territories.
High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe)
ws 55-76 mm fp June – August cf violets
Perhaps the country’s rarest and most endangered species due to loss of habitat. Can only be seen on some limestone hills in Cumbria and a couple of sites on Exmoor.
Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja)
ws 58-68 mm fp June – august cf violets
The commonest and most widespread fritillary. Prefers flower rich grassland but can be found on coastal dunes.
Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)
ws 69-80 mm fp July – August cf violets
A lovely sight in a high summer woodland ride. This, the largest, fritillary is expanding it’s range from it’s south western stronghold. A small percentage of females are blue/green in colour, these are the beautiful Valezina form.
Marsh Fritillary (Eurodryas aurinia)
ws 30-50 mm fp May – June cf devil’s-bit scabious
A beautifully coloured butterfly though the scales are soon lost hence the old name Greasy Fritillary. Confined mostly to the south and west. It likes damp meadows with a plentiful supply of the caterpillar food plant. Numbers can be affected by a parasitic wasp.
Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia)
ws 38-52 mm fp May – July cf ribwort plantain
The only British butterfly named after a real person, Lady Eleanor Glanville, who discovered it in Lincolnshire in the 17th century. Since then it’s range has shrunk and now can only be found on the south coast of the Isle of Wight in small numbers.
Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)
ws 39-47 mm fp May – July cf common cow-wheat
The smallest fritillary. This rare butterfly can only be seen in three areas, East Blean wood Kent, a couple of woods in sth Essex and some coombes on Exmoor. In some years can emerge in huge numbers.
SATYRIDAE The browns
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)
ws 46-56 mm fp April – October cf Yorkshire fog, cock’s-foot, false brome
Has spread it’s range in the last hundred years. Found in sunlit clearings in woodland where males defend their territories.
Wall (lasiommata megera)
ws 45-53 mm fp May – September cf various grasses
Sadly declined in recent years but there are records of fluctuations in population. Likes to bask in sunny spots like walls, hence the name. Can have three broods in a good year.
Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)
ws 53-59 mm fp June – August cf various grasses
Found mostly in the midlands and the south. Loves flower filled rough grassland.
Grayling (Hipparchia semele)
ws 51-62 mm fp June – August cf sheep’s-fescue, marram, bristle bent
Very difficult to spot when they rest on stony ground, they always settle with wings closed and angle against the sun so as not to cast a shadow. Mostly found in coastal areas.
Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)
ws 37-44 mm fp July – September cf various grasses
Common in England but absent in Scotland. A butterfly of hedgerows and is sometimes called the Hedge Brown.
Meadow Brown (Maniola Jurtina)
ws 40-60 mm fp June – October cf various grasses
Probably the most abundant butterfly in the country. Can be seen anywhere there is a bit of open grassland. Only flies when the sun shines.
Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)
ws 42-52 mm fp June – August cf various grasses
Loves hedgerows and woodland rides. Can be seen flying on dull rainy days. Common over most of the country except the north west.
Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)
ws 33-37 mm fp April – September cf various grasses
This species has the widest range of habitats of any butterfly and can be found almost anywhere. Tends to keep low down in the grass.
Large Heath (Coenonympha tullia)
ws 35-40 mm fp June – August cf hare’s-tail cottongrass
A species of bogs and wet peatland in the north, especially Scotland, also mid-west Wales. Nectars on heather. In Scotland they have hardly any spots on the wings.