Big Butterfly Count: common species to identify and how to take part

Wildlife lovers are being urged to take part in the annual Big Butterfly Count to help assess the state of nature in UK gardens this summer. Here is our guide on common butterfly species to spot in the UK and how to take part.


Find out how to take part in the 2021 Big Butterfly count, plus key species to identify.


What is the Big Butterfly count?

The Big Butterfly Count is the world’s largest butterfly survey. Butterfly scientists will use the data gained over a three week period to assess where conservation efforts should be targeted in the future. The data is crucial to butterfly specialists wanting to learn more about the population and habits of various butterflies.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) Bentley Wood, Wiltshire

When is the Big Butterfly count in 2021?

The Big Butterfly count will take place from Friday 16 July – Sunday 8 August 2021. 

After the record-breaking temperatures experienced in the UK, the chances of the public witnessing a wide range of butterflies is significantly higher.

However, as a result of the early summer heatwaves followed by wetter weather, the butterflies could struggle.

Butterfly on flower
Painted Lady ©Ian H Leach, Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly species have suffered a string of poor years, as many common species have declined in numbers, according to Butterfly Conservation president Sir David Attenborough.

Butterfly Conservation is encouraging people to use their chart to spot and record 18 species of common butterflies and two day-flying moths during the next three weeks.

2016 was the fourth worst year on record for butterflies, with common species such as the small tortoiseshell, peacock, meadow brown and gatekeeper all experiencing declines.

Sir David Attenborough launches the Big Butterfly Count, at London Zoo. Wednesday 11 July 2012. UK
Sir David Attenborough ©Kerry Staddon

In the last forty years, the UK has witnessed declines in over three-quarters of its butterflies.

“Many of our once common and widespread species like the large white, small copper and gatekeeper have started to struggle, mirroring the declines of rarer species,” said Sir David Attenborough.

“Butterfly Conservation has also revealed that butterflies are declining faster in our towns and cities than in the countryside.”


Sir David Attenborough has also promoted the importance of butterfly watching for mental health, encouraging the public to take part in The Big Butterfly Count.

“Spending time with nature offers us all precious breathing space away from the stresses and strains of modern life; it enables us to experience joy and wonder, to slow down and to appreciate the wildlife that lives side-by-side with us.”

Small tortoiseshell ©Mark Searle, Butterfly Conservation

The mental health charity, Mind, is supporting the Butterfly Conservation, as they acknowledge the numerous benefits that nature has on one’s wellbeing.

“At Mind, we have found that being in nature can have a powerful, grounding effect, with research indicating that it can help alleviate mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” said Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind.

Butterfly on flower
Green-veined White ©Iain H Leach, Butterfly Conservation

How to take part in the Big Butterfly Count

The Big Butterfly Count runs from Friday 18 July – Sunday 8 August 2021. 

Taking part in the Count is easy: find a sunny spot and spend 15 minutes counting the butterflies you see and then submit sightings online at or via the free Big Butterfly Count app.

British butterfly guide: 10 species to spot

Picking the top 10 must-see British butterflies is no easy task as the standard is remarkably high, even though only about 60 species grace our shores annually (including regular migrants). The truth is that our butterflies are remarkably emotive creatures, not least because they are essential elements of spring and summer sunshine.

Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina

Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina

No one knows how this tiny early spring butterfly obtained its name. Formerly common locally in woods, the duke is now a rare and rapidly declining butterfly, primarily of rough, ungrazed or lightly grazed limestone grassland, where it breeds on cowslip and primrose leaves in shady situations.

Most colonies hold only a handful of butterflies. However, the males gather in sheltered territories, or leks, which are occupied annually. There they squabble like mad and launch themselves against all-comers.

They are most active in the mornings, becoming quiescent after 2pm. The duke flies at cowslip time, late April through to late May, and nowadays is best seen in early to mid May.

Pearl-bordered fritillary Boloria euphrosyne

Pearl-bordered fritillary Boloria euphrosyne

Another butterfly in rapid decline, having been widespread and locally common throughout southern and western mainland Britain.

It lives mainly in woodland clearings and on bracken hillsides, but also on rough limestone grassland around Morecambe Bay and along loch sides in the Western Highlands, breeding on violets among fallen leaves or dead bracken litter.

It flies mainly during May, but has early and late years, depending on the vagaries of spring weather. Cannily, it flies when the bugle, its favoured nectar source, is in flower. This is one of our most graceful butterflies in flight, skimming low over the ground vegetation, pausing only to visit flowers or bask, the males ceaselessly searching for females.