Spotting a butterfly is a delight in the spring, summer and autumn months, and these pretty insects play an important role in pollinating flowers.

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There are approximately 60 species of butterfly that grace Britain's shores annually, including regular migrants, all varying in size, shape and colour – from yellow, red and brown, to purple, blue and white.

In our expert guide, we reveal tips on when, where and how to see common (and some rare) British butterfly species, how to identify them, and the best ways to attract more butterflies to your garden.

donis blue male butterfly Lysandra bellargus, Getty
Adonis blue male butterfly spotted in Wiltshire/Credit: Getty

How many species of British butterflies are there?

According to wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation, there are 59 species of butterfly in the UK. 57 of these are resident species and two are regular migrants.


How long do butterflies live?

The average lifespan of a butterfly is short, with most adult species only surviving for two to four weeks – many species have even shorter lifespans. Butterfly populations in the UK are affected by adverse weather conditions such as drought, wet and windy or unseasonably cold conditions.

Lavender in a container

What is Britain's rarest butterfly?

There are a number of rare species of butterfly in the UK, including the heath fritillary and the high brown fritillary.

The latest Red List assessment (2022) placed half of Britain’s butterfly species on the List. Of the 62 butterfly species assessed, half are now on the Red List, with 24 classed as threatened (8 endangered, 16 vulnerable), five near threatened, and four extinct: black-veined white, large tortoiseshell, large copper, and Mazarine blue.


What do butterflies eat?

UK Butterflies feed on nectar, collected from flowers that grow in gardens, parks and the countryside.

Join the Big Butterfly Count 2022

Wildlife lovers are being urged to take part in the annual Big Butterfly Count – and what better reason to find a shady spot for 15 minutes?

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Butterfly on yellow flower

Common British butterfly species

Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina

Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina – illustration/Credit: Richard Lewington

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.

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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.

Where to see Duke of Burgundy butterflies?

Top sites are Noar Hill near Selborne in Hampshire, Heyshott Down on the West Sussex Downs, the lower slopes of Ivinghoe Beacon in the north Chilterns and Rodborough Common near Stroud in the Cotswolds.

Pearl-bordered fritillary, Boloria euphrosyne

Pearl-bordered fritillary

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.

Where to see pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies?

The New Forest woods north-east of Brockenhurst (Pignal, New Copse and Parkhill inclosures), Bentley Wood in south-east Wiltshire, Cwm Soden near New Quay on the Ceredigion coast, Arnside Knott and Whitbarrow in south Cumbria, and Loch Arkaig in the Highlands. Try our walk at Bentley wood.

Large blue, Phengaris arion

The British race of this magnificent royal blue butterfly was declared extinct in 1979. Since then, the Swedish race has been naturalised in the West Country by a dedicated team led by top butterfly scientist Prof Jeremy Thomas.

This race is now quite well established in the Polden Hills in mid Somerset, where several colonies result from natural spread. It is also being re-established in the Cotswolds and Devon.

It flies during June on sunny slopes where the grass is kept short, and visits wild thyme flowers. The larvae feed for a while on wild thyme before becoming predators of the grubs of a single species of warmth-loving red ant. The large blue lives for 10 months underground in the ant nests.

Where to see large blue butterflies?

Access is difficult at most sites, and most colonies are extremely small. The National Trust runs an open access site at Collard Hill, near Street, Somerset. This supports one of the largest known colonies in Europe.

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Spring flowerLorton Meadows, Dorset

Swallowtail, Papilio machaon

This tropical-looking butterfly is so large and colourful it can be spotted from 200m (650ft) away as it patrols over reedbeds. Today, it flies only in the major river valleys of the Norfolk Broads, where it breeds on milk parsley, a scarce wetland plant.

It is on the wing mainly from late May through to early July, though it is seldom numerous. In hot summers there is a partial, rather localised second brood during August. Swallowtails love the flowers of marsh thistle, bramble and flag iris, but hate wind. On windy days, they patrol sheltered areas in the lee of woodland.

Where to see swallowtail butterflies

Pedestrian access is difficult on the Broads, but Hickling Broad National Nature Reserve (NNR) and How Hill nature reserve are good pay-for-entry sites, and the edges of Marsham Broad and the Butterfly Conservation reserve at Catfield Fen are also good. Mid to late June is usually the best time.

White admiral Limenitis camilla

Our most graceful butterfly in flight, the white admiral effortlessly skims the edges of trees and bushes along woodland rides in southern England, where it is common locally.

No insect loves woodland bramble flowers more, or graces them better. It is most numerous in late June and early July, but flies for only about a month. The larvae live in honeysuckle tangles situated in dappled shade. Occasionally specimens lack the distinctive white bands. The undersides of these ‘black admirals’ are especially beautiful – a once-or-twice in a lifetime experience.

Where to see white admiral butterflies?

White admirals occur in many southern woods, but they are particularly numerous at Bookham Common near Leatherhead in Surrey, Pamber Forest south of Reading, and the southern parts of Alice Holt Forest in east Hampshire. These woods also support good populations of the large and spectacular silver-washed fritillary, the happiest of butterflies, which flies at the same time as the white admiral.

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High brown fritillary, Argynnis adippe

One of the loveliest of our butterflies, large, brilliant orange and most graceful, with pieces of silver on the hind wing undersides. But it is also our most rapidly declining butterfly, and is restricted now to a few bracken hillsides in the West Country, a tiny part of South Wales, and its stronghold – the lovely limestone hills around Morecambe Bay at the southern end of the Lake District.

It flies from mid June to late July (later in Morecambe Bay), and delights in basking on bracken fronds and visiting bramble, knapweed and thistle flowers. Its larvae feed on violets among leaf or bracken litter.

Where to see high brown fritillary butterflies?

Heddon Valley in Devon, Arnside Knott in Cumbria and the Whitbarrow massif near Witherslack, Cumbria.

Purple emperor, Apatura iris

No one forgets their first purple emperor, our most impressive butterfly. It is brave, bold and powerful, but is hard to see as it lives mainly in the woodland canopy, is active only intermittently, and occurs at low population density.

Moreover, it does not visit flowers, though males periodically descend to woodland rides to imbibe moisture, often from unsavoury substances. In normal summers it is most numerous during the first two weeks of July – look for emperors when the white admirals and silver-washed fritillaries are well out.

Although associated with oaks in southern forests, it is actually a butterfly of sallow jungles in well-wooded landscapes, with the males gathering on groves of trees on sheltered hill tops, out of the wind.

Where to see purple emperor butterflies?

Bentley Wood, Wiltshire and Bookham Commons, Surrey, Botany Bay, Chiddingfold Forest, on the Sussex/Surrey border, and best of all, Fermyn Woods, near Corby in Northants.

Mountain ringlet, Erebia epiphron

This is our only mountain butterfly, necessitating a midsummer trip to the high fells of the central Lake District or the mountains of the south-west Highlands. Most colonies are found above the 500m (1,640ft) contour line.

There, mountain ringlets blow about in the wind, crashing moth-like into tussocks, and feed avidly on tormentil and, where available, wild thyme flowers. But it is well worth the trip, for no other British butterfly is quite like the mountain ringlet, and the iridescence of freshly emerged specimens is exquisite.

The flight season is very variable, seemingly consisting of pulses of emergence from early June through to late July, with early and late flying colonies.

Where to see mountain ringlet butterflies?

Ben Lawers NNR, Perthshire, is the classic locality in Scotland. In the Lake District, the slopes of Fleetwith Pike above Honister Youth Hostel are renowned, also Wrynose Breast and Cold Pike.

Adonis blue Polyommatus bellargus

The electric iridescent blue of the male’s wings is almost tropical, making this one of our most special butterflies.

It is a local butterfly of south-facing chalk and limestone hillsides in southern England, though in favoured places it is often abundant, and it has recently expanded its range due to conservation efforts.

There are two broods, in early summer and again in late summer. The second brood is usually much stronger, and often coincides with the tail end of the chalkhill blue season, its sky blue cousin. These butterflies both breed on the same plant, horseshoe vetch, in short turf.

Where to see Adonis blue butterflies?

The south-facing slopes of the Isle of Wight chalk ridge and the Purbeck Hills of Dorset, Denbies Hillside near Dorking on the North Downs, many of the Wiltshire downs, and Rodborough Common in the Cotswolds.

Brown hairstreak Thecla betulae

The latest of our butterflies to emerge, the brown hairstreak flies from late July into September. This is one of our hardest butterflies to see, as observing it requires much standing around, waiting, searching ash trees with binoculars and neck ache.

But this butterfly has a cult following and its own website. It occurs at low population density in landscapes rich in blackthorn, the larval foodplant, but is indolent and flies mostly in early mornings.

The males then laze around, high up on ash trees close to blackthorn hedges or tangles, where they feed from sticky ash buds. Sometimes males and females visit angelica, bramble and hemp agrimony flowers. Females flit about in early afternoon, laying eggs on blackthorn shoots and basking in late summer sunshine.

Where to see brown hairstreak butterflies?

Alners Gorse in north Dorset, Noar Hill in east Hampshire, Shipton Bellinger Roughs in west Hampshire, the Steyning Rifle Range in West Sussex, and Bernwood Meadows in Oxfordshire.

Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae

Small tortoiseshell butterfly illustration
Small tortoiseshell butterfly/Credit: Andrew Howe, Getty

This was our most quintessential late summer garden butterfly, regularly claiming the month of September as its own, feeding collectively on flowers such as Michaelmas daisies and Sedum spectabile prior to hibernation.

We took garden small tortoiseshells for granted. But in recent years numbers of this deeply loved butterfly have crashed, particularly in the South East – it is thought because of a newly arrived parasitic fly that heavily parasitizes the gregarious larvae in summer, but the necessary scientific studies have not been done. Also, small tortoiseshells used to hibernate successfully in buildings, but today’s centrally heated houses are too warm for them, they desiccate and die.

Red admiral, Vanessa atalanta

Red admiral butterfly illustration
Red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta/Credit: Getty

The familiar and distinctive red admiral is at its most numerous in the autumn. Traditionally, it has occurred primarily as a mid-summer migrant here, producing a home-grown brood which is truly abundant in some autumns, as in 2021. This brood appears during September and October.

For a week or two, these butterflies feed up on flowers, or on fallen apples and pears. They are then faced with a choice: hibernate here or migrate south. In bygone times, most emigrated, congregating along the coast before venturing across the English Channel. An increasing number, though, now successfully hibernate through our modern milder winters.

Painted lady, Vanessa cardui

Painted lady butterfly illustration
Painted lady butterfly/Credit: Getty

This migrant butterfly arrived here in good numbers this year, as worn grey pilgrims from north Africa. It produced a home-grown brood during August and September, after its larvae had fed up on field thistles.

Unlike its close cousin, the red admiral, it will return south during late August and September, after feeding up on flowers for a short while, gathering strength on the likes of garden Buddleias. By late September none will remain, having flown south on high level winds. Who knows when this global wanderer will next grace our shores?

Speckled wood, Pararge aegeria

Speckled wood butterfly
Speckled wood butterfly/Credit: Getty

This is a good news species, having increased its range dramatically in recent years – a hundred years ago it was a local southern species. It now occurs over most of the United Kingdom, probably as a beneficiary of milder winters, breeding on soft grasses in dappled shade.

In most districts it is at its most numerous during September, but it is a creature of shady, bushy places, as its name suggests. In mild autumns, which are not too wet or windy, some speckled woods last deep into early November. Look for them feeding on blackberries along wood edges.

Comma, Polygonia c-album

Illustration of comma butterfly
Comma butterfly/Credit: Andrew Howe, Getty

The comma is our ultimate autumn butterfly, looking just like a ragged autumn leaf. In September and October it feeds up on autumn flowers, favouring ivy and nectar-rich garden plants such as Verbena bonariensis.

It then hibernates for at least five months, unmated, often amongst loose leaf litter, in coppiced hazel stools or hedge bottoms, disguised as fallen leaves, waking in March. Then, the males set up territories, where courtship and mating occurs. The mated females fly off to lay eggs, on lone nettles or on elm trees, and the males, exhausted, die off. A new brood emerges in June.


Where to see butterflies in the UK

Meadows and pastures provide food and shelter for butterflies – here are six more places to spot them in summer.

Peacock Butterfly Getty
Peacock Butterfly has distinctive markings/Credit: Getty

Slievenacloy, County Antrim

This reserve’s highest point overlooks Belfast and, on a clear day, you can see five of the six counties of Northern Ireland. Slievenacloy is known for its orchids (nine species) and waxcap fungi (26 species), but it is also one of the best sites in Northern Ireland for Lepidoptera. Species to look out for include the small copper (pictured), common blue and dark green fritillary butterfly. ulsterwildlife.org

Ragged robin flower guide
Summer meaddow of ragged robin (Lychnis floscuculi) and buttercup, County Antrim, Northern Ireland (Getty)

Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire

Named for its many river valleys, the Yorkshire Dales National Park was created in 1954 and is home to a wealth of wildlife, including butterflies. Between early June and mid-August, look out for the rare northern brown argus in areas of unimproved limestone grassland. natureinthedales.org.uk

Hay meadow
A hay meadow in Austwick in the Yorkshire Dales/Credit: Getty

Box Hill, Surrey

More than 40 butterfly species can be seen at Box Hill in the Surrey Hills AONB thanks to its mix of habitats. The chalk North Downs grasslands support a range of blue butterflies, including the chalkhill and Adonis. The hillsides and woodlands
are also home to silver-spotted skippers, dark green and silver-washed fritillaries, white admirals and purple emperors. nationaltrust.org

Box Hill, Surrey
Box Hill, Surrey/Credit: Alamy

Snakeholme Pit, Lincolnshire

For such a small reserve (0.8 hectares), Snakeholme Pit has an impressive number of butterfly species, including the purple hairstreak (pictured) and white admiral. The former clay pit was used as a fish nursery and now supports various dragonflies and damselflies, as well as kingfishers, nightingales and adder’s-tongue ferns. butterfly-conservation.org

Meadow
Snakeholme Pit, Lincolnshire/Credit: Geograph

Lorton Meadows, Dorset

Nestled within the city of Weymouth is the 75-hectare Lorton Meadows. Small, large and Essex skippers, marbled whites and small coppers reside here, but keep an eye out too for dragonflies and orchids as you explore the meadows. The reserve is also the start of the Legacy Trail to Portland Bill. dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk

Spring flowerLorton Meadows, Dorset
Wildflowers in Lorton Meadows, Dorset/Credit: Getty

Gilfach Farm, Powys

Purple and green hairstreak butterflies live among Gilfach’s meadows, open moorland and oak woodland, alongside dark green and small pearl-bordered fritillaries. Visit later in the year and you may be lucky enough to see salmon leaping up River Marteg’s waterfalls. rwtwales.org

Gilfach Nature Reserve, Powys
Gilfach Nature Reserve, Powys/Credit: Alamy

How to attract butterflies to your garden

Provide a food source

Grow nectar-rich plants for butterflies to feed such as bluebells, buddleia, cranebills, lavender and wildflowers. Allow your grass to grow a little longer and leave daisies, buttercups and clover for insects. Keep plants watered in drier months to help keep the supply of nectar going during the summer.

Avoid using pesticides

Unsurprisingly, pesticides are harmful to butterflies and other insects. If possible, avoid using them during the peak butterfly months of spring and summer to allow the species chance to thrive.

Allow some weeds to grow

Leave your garden to grow wild. Butterflies need longer grasses for warmth and shelter, so if you can leave the edge of your lawn to grow longer and leave the odd weed for butterflies to lay larvae.

Painted lady butterfly on scabious
Painted lady butterfly, (Vanessa cardui) at rest on scabious in wildflower meadow, /Credit: Getty
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See our wildlife-gardening guide for more ideas, or visit discoverwildlife.com for more wildlife-friendly gardening tips.

Authors

Matthew Oates in a field
Matthew OatesButterfly expert and naturalist

Matthew Oates is a butterfly expert and media naturalist for the National Trust. A passionate all-round wildlife enthusiast, he is the author of books such as Butterflies and All About Butterflies.

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