Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Garden wildlife identifier: butterflies

Find out about some of the butterflies you're most likely to spot in the UK.

It’s a mixed picture for our nation’s butterflies – some are sadly in decline, while others are on the up or expanding their territory. They all need our help regardless, and gardeners can play a key role in supporting these beautiful creatures.

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It’s not difficult to lend a hand – just plant a range of nectar-rich blooms for butterflies to feed on throughout the season, and if possible, caterpillar food plants.

The recent success of some species shows that the fate of certain butterflies can be turned around, and that, despite bad weather, climate change and loss of habitat, some species, such as the comma and holly blue, are faring well.

More butterfly content:

Here are some butterflies that you may see in your garden, with advice on the food plants they breed on and feed on.

Gardeners can play a key role in supporting these beautiful creatures.

Peacock (Aglais io)

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Large and striking, this butterfly has peacock-like eyespots on its wings. Look out for it between mid-March and mid-May, then mid-July until hibernation time in September. The peacock butterfly is becoming more common. It’s a familiar sight in the southern half of Britain, but is a relative newcomer in the north. It’s now colonising Scotland.

Caterpillar food plants: common nettle
Butterfly food plants: buddleja, sedum


Small tortoisehell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

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This is one of our most common garden butterflies, with orange and black marked wings, edged with iridescent blue. It’s mostly seen between mid-March and May, and then from mid-July to September.

Caterpillar food plant: common nettle
Butterfly food plant: buddleja, scabious


Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)

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The small copper butterfly is widespread across the UK, except northern Scotland. Numbers are down 37 per cent in the last 40 years, likely due to climate change.

Caterpillar food plants: sorrel, sheep’s sorrel
Butterfly food plants: all nectar-rich flowers


Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

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Migrating in large numbers from North Africa in spring, this fast-flying butterfly has pale, buff-orange wings, the black tips marked with white spots. Look out for it from late March to October. It currently can’t overwinter here, but that may alter with climate change.

Caterpillar food plants: thistles, nettles
Butterfly food plants: nectar-rich flowers


Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus)

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Holly blue numbers vary greatly due to a parasitic wasp. Until recently its range was confined to England and Wales, but now it’s expanding and moving north.

Caterpillar food plants: holly, ivy
Butterfly food plants: sap, aphid honeydew


Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

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Named for the comma-shaped silver marks on the undersides of its wings, you can see commas in March and April. Offspring emerge as dazzlingly bright adults in July, or darker, more angular ones in August, before hibernating from around the end of September. The comma has made a spectacular comeback since the 1960s and is now found in England, Wales, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the west coast of Ireland. It’s moving north and west.

Caterpillar food plants: nettle, hops
Butterfly food plants: buddleja


Gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus)

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This is a declining species. It’s widespread across the UK, except northern Scotland, but it’s in decline – numbers are down 37 per cent over the past 40 years, likely due to climate change.

Caterpillar food plants: grasses
Butterfly food plants: oregano


Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

One of Britain’s best-known butterflies, the red admiral has a near-perfect wing pattern of red bands and white spots on a black background. It’s most commonly seen from late March to October.

Caterpillar food plants: nettles

Butterfly food plants: buddleja, eupatorium, knapweed


Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)
Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)

As its name suggests, the speckled wood is a common sight in woodlands. The wings are dark brown with spots – these spots tend to be orange in the south of the UK, turning creamy-white the further north you go. It can be spotted from April to October, with adults peaking in August.

Caterpillar food plants: grasses, including couch grass and wood false broom

Butterfly food plants: nectar-rich flowers


Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)
Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)

A widespread species, the brimstone is largely restricted to wetlands, which is the preferred habitat of the two buckthorn species (Rhamnus frangula and Rhamnus carthartica) that the caterpillars feed on. The butterflies can generally be spotted from June to September.

Caterpillar food plants: alder buckthorn and common buckthorn

Butterfly food plants: buddleja, scabious, knapweed


Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina)

Meadow brown butterfly (Maniola jurtina)
Meadow brown butterfly (Maniola jurtina)

A common and widespread species in the UK, the meadow brown is quite variable depending on where it’s found in the country, but can generally be recognised by its mousy-brown colour and two black eyespots, each dotted with a white pupil. It’s most commonly seen from June to September.

Caterpillar food plants: grasses

Butterfly food plants: nectar-rich flowers


Green-veined white (Pieris napi)

Green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi)
Green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi)

The green-veined white can commonly be spotted in woodlands and damp grasslands. It can be identified by its white wings with green stripes on the undersides. It’s most commonly seen from April to September.

Caterpillar food plants: wild brassicas including watercress, garlic mustard and cuckooflowers

Butterfly food plants: nectar-rich flowers


Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

The ringlet is is attractive species with dark brown, white-fringed wings and bearing black spots. It’s often spotted in woodlands and damp meadows and can be seen on the wing from June to August.

Caterpillar food plants: grasses

Butterfly food plants: wild privet, brambles


Clouded yellow (Colias croceus)

Clouded yellow butterfly (Colias croceus)
Clouded yellow butterfly (Colias croceus)

The clouded yellow is a migratory species, seen in highest densities on the south coast of the UK, particularly chalk downlands. The undersides of the wings are nearly all yellow, but the tops have black markings on their outer edges. It’s most commonly seen from May to November.

Caterpillar food plants: clovers and bird’s foot trefoil

Butterfly food plants: knapweed, ragwort, clover, oregano

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Kate Bradbury says

All of these butterflies are on the wing from late July and through August. If you cut your buddleia down hard in May, then it will flower slightly later, to coincide with the key butterfly flight period.

Keeping plants well watered means more nectar – so be sure to keep the soil moist, especially in warm weather. 

Kate Bradbury

Other butterflies you may see

  • Continental swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus) – a rare migrant from continental Europe
  • Silver-washed fritillary (Argymnis paphia) – initially found in the south west, it has spread to East Anglia and the Midlands
  • Purple emperor (Apatura iris) – an elusive butterfly, mostly confined to woodland colonies in southern counties, but popping up in new places