2017 in Butterflies

Like the bees in my last post – butterflies are summer’s companions. Whilst the bees add movement and sound, their gentle buzz providing the background to many a summer’s day, the butterflies are all about the flair and colour.

Below are a few of my favourite encounters as we moved through 2017.

Green hairstreak – Callophrys rubi

This is a species I have only ever seen briefly before, flitting in the low grasses as we walked The Ridgeway through Oxfordshire a few years ago. A hunt around Barnack Hills and Holes in May soon turned up a hawthorn shrub with several males standing guard over their patches of territory. This one was settled on an unopened flower bud, poised and ready to spring into the air as soon as another flew past and questioned his ownership of this space. You can read more about this encounter in this blog post!

Green hairstreak male guarding his patch - poised ready to chase an intruder!

Green-veined white – Pieris napi

With the exception of a couple of rarer species, it is easy to overlook our white butterflies as most people view them as pests in the garden. But like almost anything – they’re beautiful when viewed in their own right and on their own merits. My favourite part of this photograph is those chequered blue eyes as this butterfly feeds on forget-me-not flowers at Treswell Wood.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary – Boloria selene

We were walking through the dunes and forest at Newborough in Anglesey in May and spotted this static shape at the side of a path – a small pearl-bordered fritillary resting on the seedhead of a plantain. It’s rough brown textures gave it excellent camouflage. This species is widespread across the UK but only occurs in discreet colonies, commonly in the clearings in deciduous woodland but also marshland and moorland further north.

Ringlet – Aphantopus hyperantus

This is a common species of grassland and woodland habitats, but one which always delights me. The veins in the soft-brown wings are such good parodies of those found on the leaves it settles amongst, and the five eye spots are striking. This photo was taken at the Hills and Hollows behind Grantham, the butterfly sheltering amongst the grass on a windy afternoon.


Marbled white – Melanargia galathea

This white is actually more closely related to the browns than the other whites, despite name and appearance. It is a species I usually associate with the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire as these are where I have encountered them most often on walks and surveys, so it was lovely to find a healthy population down the road in Bedford Purleius. This was taken in the meadow close to the carpark, along with the silver-washed fritillary pictured below.

Burnet moth – Zygaena sp.

Technically not a butterfly but a dayflying moth, I felt I had to include this photograph. This was taken at Lolly Moor – a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve – when I called by this year. The marsh helleborines were my main aim but there were many other orchids and these burnet moths were bouncing between them. This is one of the five-spot burnet moths, but I am unsure whether the ‘regular’ or the narrow-bordered. Any tips welcomed!


Small copper – Lycaena phlaeas

Some years I see this delicate little butterfly everywhere but others it is a real treat to encounter. Sadly 2017 was the latter – the only time I came across this species was whilst walking on a path above the Thames in Oxfordshire. The set-aside margins in the fields were particularly species-rich, drawn from the local wildflower meadows, and this was one of several species of butterfly enjoying the flowers on the day we were there.

Silver-washed fritillary – Argynnis paphia

This was a rather ragged specimen but its grace and presence was un-diminished – they stood out a mile flying alongside the marbled whites in the meadow at Bedford Purleius. This is our largest fritillary species in the UK and gets its name from the streaks of silver on the underside of the wings.


Wall brown – Lasiommata megera

A walk from Cheddar up the gorge to the quarry at the top rewarded me with this butterfly. The wall used to be much more common across the UK but suffered severe declines and now has a much smaller distribution. This is certainly the first time in a number of years I have come across this butterfly.


Common blue – Polyommatus icarus

Taken at sunrise in Muston Meadows, this common blue had spent the night roosting on the seedhead of a black knapweed and was waiting for the morning rays to warm it before taking to the wing. These little blue butterflies are abundant within the grasses, feeding particularly on the bird’s foot trefoils and other meadow wildflowers.

Red admiral – Vanessa atalanta

The last butterflies I saw in 2017 were those set to see out the winter in their adult form – the red admirals, small tortoiseshells and peacocks. Ivy flowers provide an abundant source of nectar for these late-flying species and they joined the bees and hoverflies on the flowers beside Grantham Cemetery.

Purple Emperors in Fermyn Woods

The purple emperor (Apatura iris) is not the rarest butterfly in the UK – that rather dubious accolade would go to the high brown fritillary although there are far too many other species, such as the black hairstreak, in close contention.

But the purple emperor is one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive. It is a woodland butterfly, favouring deciduous woodlands with a dominance of oak or beech although a good supply of willow, the larval foodplant, is another requirement. Perhaps it is this habitat, the high treetops in mature woodland glades, which makes the species all the more regal as it descends and deigns to be appreciated before ascending once more.

They are found in mature woodlands through southern England with occasional colonies elsewhere in the country and, luckily, one of these is only a 40 minute drive from Grantham.

We took a drive down to Fermyn Woods on Saturday, arriving around 10am, and were lucky enough to spot a male purple emperor settled upon a damp digging to the side of the trackway within 100m of the car. The males are seen most frequently as they come to ground to take moisture, nutrients and salts from damp ground and animal droppings – a behaviour which spoils the regal image just a little.

The remainder of the time, the adults spend high in the canopies, feeding upon the aphid honeydew and this is generally where the females will stay – they could be seen occasionally breaking the canopy cover before returning and remaining on high.


The purple emperor is very darkly coloured, almost black, with patterning of white and orange on the top of the wings. The underside are a magnificent rich marbled motif of brown and white, almost as spectacular as the open wings. But when the light catches the wings of the males, the reason for their name becomes apparent as a sheen of purple washes across the wings, marking this out as one of the most spectacular butterflies you are likely to encounter.


As we walked amongst other enthusiasts watching the paths and the canopies, we saw another two in flight, along with many other butterflies including white admirals, ringlets, countless skippers and speckled woods.


The best time to see the purple emperors is around now – the peak date for sightings is given as the 13th July – and they are generally to be found on the ground during the morning when the sun begins to heat through. The ride which runs from east to west through the middle of the woods was the place to be although the woods have a network of paths which are worth exploring for their range of wildflowers including meadowsweet, perforate St John’s wort, hedge woundwort and red campion.