A glimpse of red or a flash of yellow as a pair of butterflies dance around your head. They can be hard to identify as they flutter by and all you really see is a fleeting blur of wings. I started identifying butterflies in earnest nearly forty years ago when I was studying zoology. Butterfly numbers in Sussex were noticeably more abundant in those days. It wasn’t uncommon to see a beautiful Swallowtail butterfly in our garden but now it is a rare sight indeed. It’s the largest and rarest of England’s butterflies.
However, there’s still a fabulous range of butterflies that can be seen throughout the South Downs and the whole of Sussex, from spring into autumn. Even on a sunny day in winter, you might be lucky to see one briefly flying before it goes back to sleep to hibernate until spring. And it’s wonderful to know that their numbers, on the whole, are now on the rise again.
Identifying butterflies can be tricky though, as some species look very similar, especially if you only get a quick glimpse of them. It’s also worth remembering that females can be considerably larger than males and in some species, the markings are quite different. Where this is the case I’ve included it in my notes.
Common butterflies of the South Downs
The following butterfly photographs, unless otherwise stated, were taken by me on my mobile phone during one of my walks in the South Downs National Park. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience and always a bit of luck!
The butterflies belonging to the Nymphalidae or Browns family are some of the easiest to identify and to photograph as they often, rather obligingly, sit still with their wings open. Other species that I’ve seen on the South Downs, but not yet managed to photograph with any reasonable success, include the Marbled White, Orange Tip, Common Blue and Adonis Blue as well as skippers, hairstreaks and fritillaries.
Brimstone (January to May, August to December)
The Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) can be seen throughout most of the year. It’s one of the first butterflies I see in any abundance on the South Downs in spring after it wakes up from its winter hibernation, but I rarely see it later in the year. It’s a medium to large butterfly with a wingspan of around 60 to 70mm. The males are yellow and the females are pale green sometimes almost white. Note the shapes of the wings, colouring and veins which make them look rather like leaves.
The Brimstone is a member of the Pieridae family of butterflies (whites and yellows). It’s a beautiful sight fluttering along verges and hedgerows but it can also be seen in scrubby grasslands and woodlands.
The caterpillars feed on Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn leaves.
It is the butter coloured wings of the Brimstone that is thought to have given rise to the word butterfly.
Brown Argus (May to June, mid-July to September)
The Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) is fond of our chalk grassland but it can also be seen in coastal areas, verges and woodland clearings. It’s relatively small with a wingspan of around 29mm. Despite its name, it is a member of the Lycaenidae family of butterflies commonly known as Blues.
When sitting with its wings closed it could be mistaken for another species of the family as the underwings of all of them are quite similar. In particular, the Brown Argus can be confused with a female Common Blue. The upper and underwings of both are very similar, however, the Common Blue has an extra spot on the underneath of its forewing.
The main caterpillar foodplant is Common Rock-rose.
Meadow Brown (June to September)
One of our most common butterflies, the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) can be found, sometimes in large numbers, in meadows, coastal dunes, roadside verges, hedgerows, waste ground, woodland paths and gardens. It’s a member of the Nymphalids family of butterflies or Browns as they are also known.
This medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of 50-55mm is easily mistaken for a Gatekeeper. However, the Meadow Brown only has one white dot inside the black spot on its forewings whereas, Gatekeepers have two white dots in the black spot. Gatekeepers also have a lot more orange on their upper wings.
The caterpillars of the Meadow Brown feed on a range of grasses.
Painted Lady (mid-March to June, August to mid-October)
Also a member of the Nymphalids family this pretty butterfly is medium to large-sized with a wingspan of 58 to 74mm. It is a long distant migrant travelling to England each year from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Its numbers vary from year to year but on a good year, it can be seen pretty much anywhere in Sussex.
The migration is phenomenal but is not completed by one individual. It’s actually made by a series of generations. Remarkably, it can fly up to 30 miles an hour.
The caterpillars eat a wide range of foodplants including thistles and nettles.
The Painted Lady is also known as the Thistle Butterfly, and its scientific name, Vanessa cardui, means “butterfly of thistle.”
Peacock (January to June, August to December)
The Peacock (Aglais io) is one of our most spectacular and easily recognisable butterflies. This medium to large Nymphalid has a wingspan of between 63 and 69mm. When its wings are closed it looks very much like a brown leaf, however, on opening, four colourful eyespots show on its dark red upper wings, startling any would-be predators.
The Peacock can be found in a wide variety of locations across the country but particularly likes sheltered woodland clearings and pathways.
The caterpillar feeds on nettles and hops.
Red Admiral (mid-March to November)
Another member of the Nymphalids family, Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) are large with a wingspan of 64 to 78 mm. They love sitting on pathways in the sunshine warming their open wings. They are migrants from North Africa and continental Europe but they do sometimes overwinter in Southern England and occasionally can be seen as early as January briefly fluttering about before going back to sleep while waiting for the warmer weather of spring.
The caterpillars feed on nettles while the adults love the nectar of purple flowers of buddleias which is also known as the Butterfly Bush, so having both in your garden is a great way to attract Red Admirals.
Small Copper (May to October)
With a wingspan of just 26 – 36 mm, this small butterfly loves sunning itself on footpaths. Males are territorial and will fly up to any passing insect in the hope that it is a female. If not it will soon see it off before returning to the same spot. The adults mainly feed on buttercups, daisies, heather, red clover, thistles, yarrow, ragworts and common fleabane and may be found anywhere these grow.
The caterpillars feed on sorrel and dock leaves.
Small Tortoiseshell (almost year-round)
This medium-sized Nymphalid has a wingspan of 45 to 62 mm. It’s a popular visitor to our gardens and one of the most well known of our butterflies.
The Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) sleeps through much of the winter it can still be seen on warmer, sunnier days even in January. While it can be seen in many different habitats, it’s particularly common where nettles grow. Worryingly it is on the decline, especially here in the south, possibly due to a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, which on the rise due to global warming.
Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars feed on nettles.
Small White (April to September)
One of our most common butterflies the Small White (Pieris rapae) is a member of the Pieridae family and has a wingspan of between 38 and 56 mm. It is considerably smaller than the similar-looking Large White. Both species lay claim to the nickname Cabbage White due to their caterpillar’s decimation of cabbages in allotments the length and breadth of Britain. The Small White has white upper wings with grey tips on the forewings and two black spots, which also has two black dots, although the second dot can be very pale. The underside of the wings is creamy white.
The Small White can also be confused with the Black-veined White and the female Orange Tip butterflies.
More coming soon!
Speckled Wood (April into the beginning of October)
The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is found along woodland tracks and glades, gardens and hedgerows preferring shady, slightly damp areas. It’s a medium-sized butterfly of the Nymphalids family with a wingspan of 47 to 56mm with the females being larger than the males.
The caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses including False Brome and Cock’s-foot while the adults generally prefer honeydew secreted by treetop living aphids rather than nectar.