On a wing and a prayer: Census highlights butterflies' plight

The latest census of British butterflies has revealed how climate change is threatening their survival. Michael McCarthy introduces the beautiful creatures that future generations may never see
Click to follow
The Independent Online


Perhaps the most familiar of all our butterflies, the small tortoiseshell will flock to the branches of buddleia, the "butterfly bush". Hibernates in sheds, garages and even houses, tucked away in corners. Like the brimstone, it flies for much of the year. Its caterpillars feed on nettles.

PEACOCK (Inachis io )

The most unmistakable of Britain's butterflies, with its large false eyes on each wing like those on a peacock's tail. The peacock is another butterfly that hibernates and so can be seen on the wing early in the year. Its caterpillars feed on nettles, like those of small tortoiseshell and red admiral.

GRIZZLED SKIPPER (Pyrgus malvae)

An attractive small butterfly of wildflower meadows and chalk downs in southern England, the grizzled skipper overwinters as a chrysalis and hatches in about May. There may be a second generation in years when the summer is warm, and these butterflies fly in August.

SMALL COPPER (Lycaena phlaeas)

This small jewel of a butterfly is very active and indeed aggressive for its size, investigating and chasing off any other passing insects. It is found in a wide range of habitats and lays its eggs on wild sorrel plants. Adults emerge in May; a second brood flies in September.

ADONIS BLUE (Lysandra bellargus )

The intense, vivid enamel-like blue colour of this insect has given it its name, for Adonis was the beautiful young man of Greek mythology chosen by Venus to be her lover.

A butterfly of the chalk downland, formerly declining but now on the way back. On the wing from mid-May.

PAINTED LADY (Cynthia cardui)

Every year, bands of strong-flying painted ladies migrate from southern Europe and even from North Africa to Britain, in a journey at least as ambitious as bird migrations. Some years see a huge influx of thousands, while in others they are scarce. They arrive here in late May to early June.

ORANGE TIP (Anthocharis cardamines)

One of the true signs of spring is the first exhilarating glimpse of an orange tip, which is usually the first butterfly to emerge from its overwintered chrysalis (rather than having overwintered as an adult by hibernating). Its food plant is garlic mustard. On the wing from late March onwards.


One of the loveliest of all our woodland butterflies and the largest member of the fritillary family, this is an insect of the oak woods in high summer, floating magically through the trees like an orange-and-black saucer. On the wing in July and August. Still relatively common.

RED ADMIRAL (Vanessa atalanta)

Many people's favourite British butterfly because of its splendidly handsome scarlet, black and white colouring, the red admiral is mainly an immigrant to Britain in the spring, although some adults are starting to overwinter and survive. On the wing from May right through to the end of the autumn.

MARBLED WHITE (Melanargia galathea)

One of the most typical and distinctive butterflies of chalk downland and chalk slopes, the marbled white can look like a flying pocket chessboard. It lays its eggs on grasses, overwinters as a caterpillar, and flies in mid-summer, when it can be abundant. Its range is expanding from southern England.

BRIMSTONE (Gonepteryx rhamni)

The word "butterfly" was probably first used to described this striking yellow insect, before being extended to all butterfly species. It is the first and last butterfly seen each year, flying from February to November because it overwinters as an adult and flies as soon as it wakes.


Britain's fastest-declining butterfly, the high brown has decreased by more than 90 per cent in the last 20 years, due to habitat loss. Many woodland rides are being overgrown because of lack of management. The species is largely confined to the southern Lake District, parts of Wales, and Dartmoor.

PURPLE EMPEROR (Apatura iris)

Its majestic colours made this the most sought-after British butterfly by Victorian collectors; it is now just as eagerly pursued by butterfly watchers. Hard to see, because it frequents the tops of oak trees, but it will descend in the morning. A high summer insect, on the wing in July.

SWALLOWTAIL (Papilio machaon)

Wow. Britain's most spectacular insect, the largest butterfly to reside in this country, and one of the scarcest and most specialised in its habitat. It survives only in parts of the Norfolk Broads where there is plenty of milk parsley to eat. On the wing from late May to early July.

LARGE WHITE (Pieris brassicae)

Large whites and small whites were once lumped together as "cabbage whites". They used to cover cabbage fields and allotments in fluttering white clouds and were regarded as major pests. They still feed on brassicas, plants of the cabbage family, but there are fewer of them around these days.