British Butterflies

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 two 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

 

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.

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Small Skipper, Wells Norfolk

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.

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Essex Skipper, Warham Camp Norfolk

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.

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Silver spotted skipper, Aston Rowant Oxfordshire

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.

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Large Skipper, Hickling Norfolk

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.

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Grizzled Skipper, Stoke Ferry Norfolk
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Grizzled Skipper, Stoke Ferry Norfolk

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.

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Dingy Skipper, Bentley Wood Hampshire

 

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.

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Swallowtail, Hickling Norfolk

 

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.

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Wood White, Bucknell Wood Northants

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.

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Clouded Yellow, Pipers Vale Suffolk

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.

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Brimstone, Ridlington Norfolk

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.

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Large White, Ridlington Norfolk

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.

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Small White, Ridlington Norfolk

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.

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Green-veined White, Buxton Heath Norfolk

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.

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Orange-tip, Ridlington Norfolk

 

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.

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Green Hairstreak, Wiveton Downs Norfolk

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.

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Brown Hairstreak, Pipers Vale Suffolk

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.

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Purple Hairstreak, Sheringham Park Norfolk

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.

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White Letter Hairstreak, Bedford Purlius Cambs

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.

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Black Hairstreak, Glapthorne Northants

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.

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Small Copper, Pensthorpe Norfolk

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.

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Small Blue, Totternhoe Bedfordshire

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.

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Silver-studded Blue, East Ruston Norfolk
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Mating Silver-studded Blues, East Ruston Norfolk.

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.

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Brown Argus, Warham Camp Norfolk

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.

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Northern Brown Argus, Arnside Knott Cumbria

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.

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Common Blue, Warham Camp Norfolk

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.

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Chalkhill Blue, Warham Camp Norfolk

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.

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Adonis Blues, Yoesden Bank Bucks

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.

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Holly Blue, Corfu

 

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.

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Duke of Burgundy, Totternhoe Bedfordshire
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Duke of Burgundy, Totternhoe Bedfordshire

 

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.

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White Admiral, Holt cp Norfolk

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.

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Purple Emperor, Fermyn Woods Northants
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Purple Emperor, Fermyn Woods Northants

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.

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Red Admiral, Warham Camp Norfolk
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Red Admiral, Ridlington Norfolk

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.

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Painted Lady, Warham Camp Norfolk
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Painted Lady, Ridlington Norfolk

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

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Small Tortoiseshell, Arnside Knott Cumbria

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.

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Peacock, East Ruston Norfolk

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.

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Comma, Ridlington Norfolk

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary  (Boloria selene)

ws 35-44 mm   fp May – July   cf violets

Restrict 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.

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Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Arnside Knott Cumbria

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.

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Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Bentley Wood Hampshire

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.

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High Brown Fritillary, Latterbarrow Cumbria

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.

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Dark Green Fritillary, Horsey Norfolk

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.

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Silver Washed Fritillary, Holt cp Norfolk
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Silver-washed Fritillary form Valezina, Holt cp Norfolk

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.

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Marsh Fritillary, Chamber’s Farm Wood Lincolnshire

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.

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Glanville Fritillary, Corfu

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.

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Heath Fritillaries, Hockley Wood Essex

 

 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.

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Speckled Wood, East Ruston Norfolk

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.

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Wall, Warham Camp Norfolk

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.

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Marbled White, Robert’s Field Lincolnshire

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.

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Grayling, Arnside Knott Cumbria

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.

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Gatekeeper, Holkham Norfolk

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.

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Meadow Brown, Holkham Norfolk

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.

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Ringlet, East Ruston Norfolk

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.

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Small Heath, East Ruston Norfolk

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.

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Large Heath, Meathop Moss Cumbria