Butterflies of the British Isles

  • @mjpmccarthy

You might say there are a myriad sorts of summers which make up our experience and linger in the memory – hot summers, wet summers, summers of awakening, summers of love, summers of cricket, summers on the beach, summers in the mountains, summers of unforgettable holidays, summers of dreadful holidays, summers of no holidays at all. And here we are celebrating yet another one.

It has been (and it still is) a butterfly summer in The Independent. A future historian of 2009, using this newspaper as a guide, will find over the last four months headlines relating to many issues and incidents from the death of Michael Jackson to the spread of swine flu – but may also be surprised to come across a sheaf of headlines relating to winged insects.

Hardly the usual content of newspaper news pages. But in The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt we have taken the view that our butterfly fauna forms an inspiring aspect of summer whose worth is not enough appreciated, and set out to rectify that by finding and reporting on the status of every one of our 58 native butterfly species – while inviting readers to do the same.

At the time of writing, we have seen 48 of them. When you read this, it will probably be about 54. (It cannot be all 58 yet, because three species, the silver-spotted skipper, the Scotch argus and the brown hairstreak, do not generally appear before August). But it is already clear that if you take the trouble to seek out our butterflies you will encounter the beauty of the natural world at its most intense and indeed, sometimes at its most spectacular.

Adonis blues fluttering across the downland, their wings of an electric blue so brilliant that they outshone the sunlit sea 500 feet below; hundreds of orange and black heath fritillariies in a silent, mesmerising dance in a woodland glade; swallowtails nectaring on thistle flowers, so exaggeratedly glamorous in their yellow and black outfits that they seemed almost tarty; purple emperors on patrol through the oakwoods, their amethyst sheen flashing in the sunbeams – all those experiences, and many more, have been part of our hunt, and have no doubt been shared by readers.

And although we have not quite finished, we feel the time to offer readers a comprehensive guide to all our species is now, when the butterfly season is approaching its height and many are still on display – indeed, the next few weeks will be the best time of all to see some of our most colourful species such as red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells and painted ladies.

It has been quite a good butterfly summer so far, after the disastrous washouts of 2007 and 2008 whose incessant rainstorms played havoc with butterfly populations. Pretty good, if not perfect. But remember, every summer is a butterfly summer. These fragile flashes of colour, these bright flying banners, are an essential part of what makes the warm times special, and here we present out guide to all of them. We hope you enjoy it.