Chasing rainbows: Top butterfly species to see in our region

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

They brighten up spring, summer and even autumn with a kaleidoscope of colour, and they are one of the easiest creatures to see. What more excuse do you need to go on a butterfly hunt?

While many of the butterfly species found in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside are nice and distinctive, a few can look quite similar. Thankfully, with a keen eye and a little guidance, it won’t be long before you can brush up on your butterfly identification skills and pick out some of these more common beauties.

How many British butterflies are there?

56 species of butterfly call the UK home, and there are three extra species that fly here on migration all the way from overseas! During summer painted ladies arrive from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, clouded yellows from North Africa and Southern Europe, and red admirals from North Africa and continental Europe. In some years these three butterflies choose to holiday in the UK in large numbers, and 2019 has already proven to be quite an impressive year for painted ladies on the Lancashire coast.

UK butterflies you can spot in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised by just how many different butterfly species you can see in our region, of all shapes, sizes and glorious colours. Here are some of the more common ones, and this isn’t even all of them!

Orange-tip

A male orange-tip butterfly feeding from bluebells

Bob Coyle

A harbinger of spring if ever we saw one – the orange-tip butterfly is often one of the first Lancashire butterfly sightings of the year. Males are white with orange tips to their wings, while females are white with black wing-tips, and both butterflies have the most gorgeous mottled green underwings. Orange-tip butterflies lay their eggs on cuckooflower and garlic mustard in damp meadows and woodland glades – even their eggs are orange!

On the wing: April – July

Brimstone

A brimstone butterfly feeding from red clover

Jim Higham

The brimstone butterfly is another spring classic, it’s angular, citrus-yellow wings unmistakeable as it flutters across grassland and woodland. In fact, these butterflies appear so yellow (males in particular) that it’s thought this is where the ‘butter’ in ‘butterfly’ originated from. A brimstone’s underwings have strong veins that make them look like leaves – clever!

On the wing: Generally April – July, though adults hibernate so may emerge on warm days throughout the year.

Speckled wood

A speckled wood butterfly basking on a leaf in the sunshine

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

The golden-yellow splotches on the speckled wood’s deep brown wings mimic light and shade; the perfect camouflage for dappled woodland clearings. However, it’s quite rare to see one feeding from flowers as they prefer the honeydew (sap) found in the tree tops.

Speckled wood butterflies are often used as an indicator of climate change because of the surge in their numbers up north. Their range shrunk drastically during the late 19th and early 20th centuries but has since risen with the mercury – in fact, according to Butterfly Conservation, speckled woods have seen a 71 per cent increase in distribution and an 84 per cent increase in abundance over the past 40 years!

On the wing: April – September

Peacock

A peacock butterfly perched on bluebells

Janet Packham Photography

Large and flamboyant, you can’t miss the spectacular peacock butterfly. Large eyespots flash blue to confuse and startle predators, and contrast beautifully with its bright red wings. Spiky black peacock butterfly caterpillars are the type you’re most likely to see devouring nettles in big groups, their white speckles making it look as though you’re staring into a rippling, starry night sky.

On the wing: March – September

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell butterfly nectaring on purple flowers

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

The small tortoiseshell is one of our most common butterflies – look out for its orange wings with black splotches, and a border of bright blue crescents along the bottom edge of each wing. This butterfly is one of the easiest to see, flitting between flowers (especially buddleia) in both urban and rural spots.

Small tortoiseshells have a weird, kind of romantic mating ritual. The male drums his antennae on the hindwings of a female before she flits to another spot. He follows her before repeating the whole process again. This can go on for hours, until the female leads the male into vegetation where the mating itself takes place away from prying eyes and lasts until the following morning.

On the wing: Generally March – October, though adults hibernate so may emerge on warm days throughout the year.

Comma

A comma butterfly perched on a plant at Lunt Meadows nature reserve

Comma butterfly by Alan Wright

The comma might look battered and bruised at first glance, but its scalloped wings offer clever camouflage, concealing the hibernating butterfly against dead leaves. Its name comes from the small white comma mark on its underwings.

You’re most likely to spot this butterfly species in woodland clearings, but keep an eye out in your garden as winter hibernation approaches and hungry commas search more widely for nectar and rotting fruit.

On the wing: Generally March – October, though adults hibernate so may emerge on warm days throughout the year.

Small copper

A small copper butterfly perched on a leaf

Philip Precey

Though it be but little, it is fierce! The small copper is incredibly territorial, basking on a patch of bare ground or stone until an interloping insect strays too near. It doesn’t take this tiny butterfly long to chase the intruder away!

Adult small coppers have bright orange wings with black spots and black borders, and they like feeding from ragwort and thistles in a range of dry, sunny habitats. Keep your eyes peeled on heathland, unimproved grassland, woodland clearings and even waste ground.

On the wing: April – October

Green hairstreak

A green hairstreak butterfly resting on a leaf

Paul Thrush

There’s no mistaking this tiny green butterfly as it shimmers in the sunshine like a precious emerald. In fact, the green hairstreak is the UK’s only green butterfly! To spot one in our region, go for a scenic stroll across moors, mosslands or heaths, and keep your eyes peeled around patches of bilberry and gorse: two of its favourite nectar sources.

On the wing: April – June

Green-veined white

A green-veined white butterfly feeding from white flowers

Jim Higham

The best way to tell a green-veined white apart from other white butterflies is to look at its underwings, where it has a series of thick, green, vein-like markings that make it stand out from the crowd. It’s common across Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, especially in damp areas with lush vegetation like damp meadows, riverbanks and woodland rides.

On the wing: April – September

Large skipper

A large skipper butterfly resting on a leaf in the sunshine

Paul Lane

The large skipper is one of my summer favourites, feeding from flowers like bramble, knapweeds and thistles. It loves areas with long grasses, such as pastures, roadside verges, parks, churchyards, woodland rides and even urban habitats. Male large skippers can be differentiated from small skippers by the black line running through the centre of their upperwings. Both sexes have faint pale spots on their underwings.

On the wing: June – August

Common blue

Male common blue butterfly feeding from white clover

Zsuzsanna Bird

Did you know that the common blue is the most widespread of all British butterflies? You could see one everywhere from the coastal sand dunes of St Anne’s and the cliffs of Heysham, to the woodland clearings of Mere Sands Wood and the grassland of Brockholes Nature Reserve, where we have a particularly abundant population.

Male common blue butterflies have bright blue wings, while females have brown wings with a dusting of blue either side of their body, plus orange spots along the bottom edge of each wing. Both sexes have orange spots on their underwings, while the similar-looking holly blue butterfly has very small black spots.

On the wing: May – October

Rare butterflies you could see in our region

Did you know that Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside are home to some rare butterfly species? The small pearl-bordered fritillary, pearl-bordered fritillary and high brown fritillary can all be seen at Warton Crag, our limestone wildlife refuge near Carnforth. By coppicing the woodland we’ve created open, sunlit patches where the butterflies can bask, and where their caterpillar foodplant, common dog-violet, can grow.

These aren’t the only rare butterflies in Lancashire: the white-letter hairstreak is a Brockholes speciality. It’s seen on the wing there for just a few weeks between June and July, when it comes down from the treetops to nectar on brambles.

Perhaps the rarest butterfly in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is the large heath. It had virtually disappeared from our region until we reintroduced it to Heysham Moss in 2016, and now, we’re reintroducing it to an area where it’s been locally extinct for 150 years: the Manchester mosses. The large heath was once so abundant here it was nicknamed the Manchester argus, and we want to see it thriving in its former stronghold.

Find out what we’re doing

How to help butterflies

One of the best ways you can help butterflies is by making your garden more butterfly-friendly, even if all you have is a balcony. Gardens are really important, offering stepping stones between nature reserves and fragmented wildlife-rich areas; creating Nature Recovery Networks where butterflies can thrive. Here are some tips:

  • Choose nectar-rich plants for butterflies to feed on in your garden. Plant a balance of seasonal perennials that offer nectar for early butterflies such as brimstones, right through to the last red admirals of autumn. Head here for more information.
  • Grow caterpillar food plants (known as host plants).
  • Leave an area for wildflowers and grasses to grow long, where butterflies can lay their eggs.
  • Try not to use herbicides and pesticides. They kill butterflies, moths and many other insects.
  • Use peat-free compost. Peat bogs are home to many special plants and animals, including the rare large heath (Manchester argus) butterfly and the green hairstreak butterfly.
  • Take part in Butterfly Conservation’s annual Big Butterfly Count, where you can spend just 15 minutes in July and August counting the butterflies and moths you see in a certain spot. This data is used to monitor the health of butterfly populations up and down the country.

Support our work to protect butterflies in your region. From sowing wildflowers to create species-rich grassland to protecting and healing exploited peat bogs, we want to see butterflies flourishing across Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside.

Best Lancashire Wildlife Trust nature reserves for butterflies