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English Butterflies

Updated on August 15, 2012

2012 hasn’t been a good year for English butterflies, because most struggle to fly and therefore find mates when it is raining – and there has been a lot of rain through spring and summer. Some are having a late surge this August, making the most of some welcome sunshine. Here is a guide to some of the species you might see around the English countryside.

Even though there are fewer than 60 species of butterfly in England, it can be surprisingly hard to tell which species you are looking at when they flutter enticingly in front of you and won’t stop still to let you get a proper look. A good clue is the habitat you are in. If it’s a brown butterfly and you’re in woodland it is probably a speckled wood. If it’s resting near the ceiling in your house it will usually be a small tortoiseshell.

Apologies if your favourite English butterfly isn't featured.

Large White

Large white butterfly
Large white butterfly | Source

Large White Butterfly

The large and small white butterflies used to be much maligned when most people grew cabbages, because their caterpillars eat cabbage plants. Fewer people grow cabbages at home these days and large scale cabbage growers usually use very effective pesticides. In this soggy summer they have often been the only butterfly around and they have been a welcome sight during breaks from the rain. Luckily their caterpillars eat lots of the cabbages wild relatives so there is still safe food available for them.

Large whites are bigger than the small white (not surprising) but when the two arrn't together it is hard to compare sizes. The male large white doesn't have spots on the upper surface of its wings, so that is a helpful thing to look for.

Green Veined White

Green veined white butterfly on knapweed
Green veined white butterfly on knapweed | Source

Green Veined White

It is easiest to identify the green veined white from other butterflies when it is resting. The underside of the wings can then be seen and the greenish black veins stand out against a pale green background. \The caterpillars of the green veined white do not eat cabbages – so even if you have a cabbage patch you can welcome them into your garden. Green veined whites like damp meadows, hedgerows and brownfield sites which are reverting to nature.

Small Tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell on knapweed
Small tortoiseshell on knapweed | Source

Small Tortoiseshell

The small tortoiseshell is the butterfly you are most likely to find in your house. Most British butterfly overwinter as eggs or pupae, but adult small tortoiseshells hibernate and our houses appeal because they are dry. They often choose a spot where the ceiling and the wall meet. You can just leave them be – they are very easy houseguests. Outside it can be a sociable butterfly. You might see 10 or 20 enjoying a patch of thistle flowers.

Small Heath

Small heath on thistle flower
Small heath on thistle flower | Source

Small Heath

The small heath butterfly likes heathland, but is common in other grassy habitats too because the caterpillars eat grass. Although not much bigger than a 1 pence piece when it is resting, it is quite easy to spot and will like ahead of you looking tawny orange before coming to rest on a flower head.


Ringlet butterfly
Ringlet butterfly | Source


Ringlets favour hedgerows of the damper meadow you might find on the edge of a wood. You’ll often see it resting amongst the grass and when it does you will be able to see the ringlets from which it gets its name. No it doesn’t sport curls of hair, but several spots – known as false eyes – on the top and undersides of its wings.

Speckled Wood

Speckled wood butterfly
Speckled wood butterfly | Source

Speckled Wood

It’s speckled and it lives in broad leaved woodland. It likes to stake a territory around a shaft of sunlight and will chase off other butterflies which pass by. I feel quite sorry for butterflies trying to defend a territory – it is hard to look angry when you are beautifully marked and have fragile wings!

Meadow Brown

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Male meadow brownMeadow brown butterfly
Male meadow brown
Male meadow brown | Source
Meadow brown butterfly
Meadow brown butterfly | Source

Meadow Brown

The clue is in the name – meadow brown butterflies love meadows. Whether the meadow is mainly grass or quite flowery as you walk through it you will disturb meadow browns which will jink ahead of you and then drop out of sight in the grass. Female meadow browns are the most attractively marked when their wings are open as they have orange around the false eye spots, whereas the male is all brown. With the wings closed it is harder to tell which is which.

Hedge Brown/Gatekeeper

Hedgebrowns aka gatekeepers
Hedgebrowns aka gatekeepers | Source

Hedge Brown aka Gatekeeper

Confusingly the hedge brown butterfly is equally well known as the gatekeeper butterfly. The hedge brown name comes from their colour and their preferred habitat of hedges. The gatekeeper name comes from their habit of setting up territories in field corners or around stiles and field gates. They probably have territories all along the hedgerow, but humans just happen to notice them most by gateways and stiles!

Easy to confuse with other browns when their wings are closed, Open the wings reveal an orange base colour with double eye spot and thick brown edge to the wings.


Comma butterfly
Comma butterfly | Source


The comma butterfly is actually named for a small white comma mark that you can see when its wings are folded and not for the comma shaped curves of the wings. With the wings open, it is a very attractive copper colour with black markings. Commas aren’t very sociable and are most often seen alone. They like gardens and parkland.

Common Blue

Common blue butterfly
Common blue butterfly | Source

Common blue

There are quite a lot of species of blue butterfly, such as the silver-studded blue and the Adonis blue, but most have are confined to very limited areas of England. The common blue can be seen throughout the country though. It especially likes meadows where there are a lot of wild flowers from the pea family such as bird’s foot trefoil and medick, because these are the caterpillars’ food.


Large Skipper I think
Large Skipper I think | Source


I find skippers hard to distinguish between, but as a group they are distinctive because they have a distinctive stance when they rest on a flower. I think the individual photographed is a large skipper, but I’m not prepared to put money on it. They love a grassy wild flower meadow and I also see plenty on the lower areas of moorland in Lancashire. They flit or skip from flower to flower (hence the name skipper) and you will often see two having a bit of an aerial butterfly fight, so they are entertaining to watch.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady
Painted Lady | Source

The Painted Lady

With a name like that you expect something a little exotic with the painted lady. Whilst it is an attractive butterfly, it’s most interesting feature is that because it can’t survive overwinter in the UK, it arrives by migrating across the sea from southern Europe and North Africa. Some years they arrive en mass, lay eggs which quickly hatch and when the caterpillar’s become adults the painted lady numbers increase further and you can see them in their hundreds. Other years just a few come over and you hardly see any.

Burnet Moths

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Five spot burnet mothBurnet moth in flight
Five spot burnet moth
Five spot burnet moth | Source
Burnet moth in flight
Burnet moth in flight | Source

Burnet Moths – not a butterfly!

If you see a splash of black and red fluttering across a meadow, it is easy to imagine that it must be a butterfly, but it will either be a burnet moth or a cinnabar moth. These are day flying moths with red underwings. These are not usually showing when the rest, but are obvious in flight. There are six spot burnet moths and five spot burnet ones – so when they rest count the spots on one wing to see which species you’ve got. The cinnabar moth only has 2 red spots each side at rest.


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    • profile image


      8 weeks ago

      I've come back and read this hub again. I'm having to check on the outside my house butterfly situation Thanks again for publishing this one. So useful.

    • daisyjae profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      I love the pictures on your hub, so beautiful!

    • By Lori profile image

      By Lori 

      7 years ago from USA

      Beautiful photos,and a really nice Hub !

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      7 years ago from London


    • Nettlemere profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Thank you Eliza - it's especially nice to know when a hub has been worth a revisit!

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      7 years ago from London

      I've come back and read this hub again. I'm having to check on the outside my house butterfly situation. Thanks again for publishing this one. So useful.

    • Nettlemere profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Thank you Eliza, your comments are much appreciated.

      I realise to my mortification that this is one of my hubs I've failed to keep up with comments on, so apologies for my lack of diligence, DAL, Rhonda, Allie, Mmargie, Molmin, Avian Novice and Marcy and thank you for all having taken to trouble to comment so positively.

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      7 years ago from London

      What a lovely life you have photographing butterflies. It is so wonderful to see your pictures and excellent knowledge. I love butterflies. Voted UP!

    • D.A.L. profile image


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Nettlemere, enjoyed this informative hub enhanced by your great photographs. This year, as you point out, has been very bad for these beautiful creatures. However, just this week I have seen speckled wood,red admiral, comma and small tortoise shell on the wing. The caterpillars of the cabbage white are still feeding on the nasturtium foliage. Great hub.

    • RhondaHumphreys1 profile image

      Rhonda Humphreys 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      Beautiful share neddlemere. I enjoy looking at the photos too. Voted up and beautiful

    • alliemacb profile image


      7 years ago from Scotland

      I love butterflies but don't see them much these days. My favourite is the small tortoiseshell but you've introduced me to several I had never heard of before. Voted up!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image


      7 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      This is such a beautiful hub, Nettlemere! If I had to choose a favorite, I don't think I could. I voted up and beautiful!

      Great job!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Really great photos; excellent descriptions of habitat and very interesting facts. Has really inspired me to look more carefully when on dog walks in the countryside. Voted up!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      These are all so beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      7 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a beautiful guide to your butterflies! Your photos are excdptional, and I see varieties there that I'm not familiar with here. Guess that means I'm due for a visit to England, right? Voted up and up!


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