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Guide to British Butterfly Identification UK

Updated on July 7, 2016
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A guide to British butterflies in the United Kingdom.

All photos copyright Peter Broster

Have you ever seen a British butterfly that you could not identify ? There are several books available but the internet usually requires scrolling through masses of images in the hopes of spotting 'your find'. Butterfly spotting used to be a cruel sport catching the insects in a net and pinning them to a board for display. Fortunately those days are gone and the modern amateur lepidopterist's tool is the digital camera. My technique when I find a butterfly is to use the macro setting and then steadily get closer and closer, snapping away all the time. Eventually the tipping point arrives and, depending on the species, the butterfly takes flight. I often then have a collection of six to a dozen images in which there are hopefully a couple of good ones. I delete the sub par photos and the remainder go into my collection for naming and description.

Butterfly habitat is varied and can be very specific to the species. I find Common Blues like open heathland while Red Admirals and Peacocks favour gardens and parks. However, the Large Blue requires red ant populations and thyme to feed on. Like all species, the more specific the requirements, the more susceptible they are to environmental pressure and thus some butterflies have become endangered.

I don't want to get into the discussion of how to distinguish a British butterfly from a British moth. Many moths resemble butterflies and many butterflies, moths. There is one that I use, a moth's antennae are feathered while a butterfly's are smooth with a 'bobble' at the end although I am told even this is not conclusive. As with all things, practice makes perfect and with time and knowing what you are looking for, the differences are quite clear. And fortunately the ones you are likely to see on a sunny day are very obviously butterflies.

I have seen many beautiful butterflies that I haven't been able to photograph. The Brimstone is an example. I watched it fly past me at high speed dancing from flower to flower across the meadows but it would not settle and thus remains one that needs to be added to the collection. All the photos in this collection have been taken by me on a standard digital camera and I hope you enjoy them for simply being butterflies.

Finally a note on 'why butterflies'? They apparently do not serve any useful purpose, making honey, tilling the earth, controlling pests etc. What would encourage nature to create such a creature? Me, I don't care, their sheer beauty is enough. Their moniker 'flying flowers ' is well applied and I can spend many hours watching them at play.

All photos in this article copyright Peter Broster available via creative commons.


Ringlet Butterfly Facts

Aphantopus hyperantus

Found on damp grassland throughout Britain the ringlet is a dark brown butterfly with distinctive eye spots on the under wing. When newly emerged from its chrysalis, the ringlet has a black velvety appearance with a white fringe. As can be seen from this image the wings deteriorate with time and flapping. Blackberry bushes and Wild Privet are favourite nectar sources and is frequently found alongside water courses. Adults fly with a characteristic bobbing flight in dull, cloudy conditions when most other butterflies are inactive. This has made it possible for the butterfly to increase its range substantially throughout England, Wales and Scotland in recent years while other species have suffered.

Small Skipper
Small Skipper

Small Skipper Butterfly Facts

Thymelicus sylvestris

Orange butterfly with a black scent scales on the edge of the male wings. The antennae tips are orange which distinguishes it from the Essex Skipper whose antennae tips are black. Unusually the butterfly basks with wings set an angle, partly raised. The stubby body has been likened to moths but the antennae style and the distinctive butterfly flight puts the skippers (Hesperiidae) with the butterflies. Prefers a habitat of long grassland over woodland.

Red Admiral
Red Admiral

Red Admiral Butterfly Facts

Vanessa Atalanta

Migratory butterfly that arrives from europe every year. They can hibernate over winter and emerge looking rather shabby in the following spring but are often killed off by the cold. They love to eat rotten fruit but also are frquently seen on many native flowers. This is one of the few British Butterflies I have also found high on the hillside flying across farmers fields with not a flower in sight. Remarkable long distance butterflies and beautiful to behold


Comma Butterfly Facts

Polygonia C-album

This may not be the most beautiful butterfly but undoubtedly this is my favourite British butterfly. I have always enjoyed watching this raggedy shaped butterfly as it feeds on flower heads. It gets its name from the small white 'comma' shape on its undersides. The butterfly likes gardens and hedgerows and hibernates in Britain overwinter. The ragged wing shape is supposed to resemble a dead leaf and thus is a help with camoflage.


Peacock Butterfly Facts

Inachis Io

Probably the most spectacular and certainly one of the most beautiful butterflies of the UK. The Peacock is seen in gardens and hedgerows and is very fond of Buddleia bushes. The name comes from the large bluish eye spots on fore and hind wings. The Peacock is a strong migrant flyer and has been found as far north as Iceland.

Gatekeeper Butterfly Facts

Pyronia Tithonus

Also known as the Hedge Brown, the Gatekeeper is a fairly common butterfly seen in fields and hedgerows all over England and Wales. The male has distinctive brown patches on the forewing which are scent patches (see photo).

Speckeld Wood
Speckeld Wood

Speckled Wood Butterfly Facts

Pararge aegeria

A fairly common widespread member of the brown family, the speckled wood is well named and can be seen over much of the British Isles. It has a preference for grasses and rarely visits flowers. It prefers woodlands and grasslands but can also be seen in gardens.

Common Blue
Common Blue

Common Blue Butterfly Facts

Polyommatus icarus

This beautiful butterfly is seen in open grassland and meadow locations. It is probably the commonest of all butterflies and in some locations can be abundant. Only 17 mm in overall width the butterflies are a delight to watch as they dance in the sun. There are many very similar species of blue but this is the only one with a small black spot in the middle of the fore wing underside.

Small Copper Butterfly Facts

Lycaena phlaeas

The Small Copper is solitary but sometimes can be found in large numbers at good locations. Males are territorial defending and returning to the same spot. Generally a stable population the Small Copper has declined in recent years. Common Sorrel and dock leaves are the main foodplants while habitat includes chalk grassland, moorland, heathland, coastal dunes, woodland clearings and unimproved grassland. Small Coppers may also be found in small patches of land such as roadside verges, railway embankments and churchyards!!!!

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly Facts

Aglais urticae

Widespread throughout Britain and commonly found in gardens. Bright orange and black wings with white spot in forewing. The Small Tortoiseshell is among the most well known butterflies. Its invasion of urban areas have made it a familiar species. One of the first butterflies to be seen in spring and the last in autumn it often visits garden flowers in large numbers. As with all butterflies this farly common species has suffered in recent years. Its favourite food is the common nettle and its habitat varies from town to countryside.

Meadow Brown Butterfly Facts

Maniola jurtina

The Meadow Brown is a very common species and sometimes hundreds may be seen together. Adults fly even in dull weather. Its foodplants include a wide range of grasses and its favourite habitats include grasslands, heathland, coastal dunes, roadside verges, hedgerows, and waste ground. Also occurs in parks, gardens, and cemeteries.

Green Veined White
Green Veined White

Green Veined White Butterfly Facts

Pieris napi

Widespread and common throughout Britain. White with prominent greenish veins on hind wing. Upper wings have one or more spots. The Green-veined White can be found throughout the countryside, but prefers damp, sheltered areas. It breeds on wild crucifers and is not a pest of cabbage crops. The green veins on the underwing make it well camouflaged when it hides among vegetation. The butterfly is common and widespread in Britain, but it is probably less abundant than formerly due to loss of its grassland habitats. Its foodplants are a wide range of wild crucifers, water-cress, wild cabbage and nasturtium. Its habitat is hedgerows, ditches, lakes, and ponds, damp meadows and moorland.

Two Tortoiseshells a bee and a seagull's cry - Tortoiseshells and Buddleias

Often called the butterfly bush, Buddleias are famous for attracting butterflies. I am not certain of the correlation but it seems to particularly attract Nymphalidae i.e. Red Admirals, Peacocks, Tortoiseshells etc. As may be expected, my garden is full of these plants, I started with one full grown from my mother's garden and have since added 5 more including a white and a yellow ( the red variety ended up being a lilac so I will try again next year)


What is your favourite Butterfly

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Do you enjoy watching British butterflies?

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    • floppypoppygift1 profile image

      floppypoppygift1 5 years ago

      Yes! I hope you come to Tucson AZ sometime and enjoy our birds & butterflies, too! Cheers~cb

    • RaintreeAnnie profile image

      RaintreeAnnie 5 years ago from UK

      Yes they are beautiful! We have two Buddleias which do attact a lot of butterflies and we try to plant for wildlife. I enjoyed reading your guide to the different butterflies.

    • MarcoG profile image

      Marc 5 years ago from Edinburgh

      Great collection here. It would be nice to identify the odd butterfly that I see...although in this weather, there's not a lot going on, lol

    • annieangel1 profile image

      Ann 5 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      what a beautiful lens - thanks for the reminder of the butterfly count. don't forget to add your image credits in when you have time - blessed

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 5 years ago

      Another Great Lens!

    • rashmis lm profile image

      rashmis lm 6 years ago

      That's beautiful.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 6 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Beautiful butterflies!