How to Identify the Top Ten Most Common British Butterflies

Published on July 18th 2020
A small tortoiseshell butterfly on a buddleia bush
July is a wonderful month to enjoy watching butterflies in our gardens and local parks, fields and woods.
On our family walk around the local water meadows this morning, we can see Small Skipper butterflies dancing around us with their characteristic darting flight, and each footstep startled Ringlets and Meadow Browns out of the long grass.
A close up of a ringlet butterfly on a flower
A Ringlet butterfly
Unfortunately, this abundance is no longer the norm. According to The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015 report, an alarming 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterfly species have declined in numbers since the 1970s.
One of the ways that we can help provide data to assess this decline and find ways to save butterfly species from extinction is to join in with this month’s Big Butterfly Count.
More than 100,000 people took part in the record-breaking 2019 Big Butterfly Count.
If you’re intending to get involved in the 2020 survey, which takes place from Friday 17 July to Sunday 9 August, here are some of the butterflies to look out for based on the top ten from last year’s results:

Painted Lady

This long-distance migrant butterfly arrives in the UK in large numbers from Africa, but only on certain years.
The most recent Painted Lady year was 2019 when many thousands arrived in mid to late June, quickly breeding a new generation which emerged during the survey.
These numbers were topped up with further influxes of Painted Ladies from the continent, which Butterfly Conservation suggests were probably migrating south from Scandinavia.
A painted lady butterfly on a branch
My kids loved watching Painted Ladies on the lavender last year and we reared our own butterflies from minuscule (but very hungry) caterpillars.
When they pupated and emerged, we released them in the garden where they basked in the sun for a while before flying over the fence and away.


Peacock butterflies are one of the most extravagantly patterned of all our butterflies with their iridescent ‘eyes’ intended to confuse predators.
Last month, I found a large colony of Peacock caterpillars on a sunny patch of nettles in the meadow. These spiky black caterpillars emerge from eggs laid in batches of up to 400 and build communal webs, living in colonies until they are fully grown and ready to pupate.
A peacock butterfly


A Comma butterfly landed in our bramble patch earlier today, displaying the tiny white comma on its underwing.
The underwing of a comma buttrerfly
The underside of the Comma butterfly
Later, with its wings fully opened, I could see the scalloped edges and vivid brown-on- orange patterning that makes the comma such an attractive, elegant butterfly.
A comma butterfly on a leaf
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Small Tortoiseshell

One of the most widespread butterfly species in the UK, the Small Tortoiseshell is a common garden visitor.
With its delicate wing patterns in orange, red, black, yellow and blue, this delightful creature can be seen throughout the year in the UK. It overwinters as an adult and can often be found hibernating in garden sheds and garages.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on a flower
Small tortoiseshell

Red Admiral

Partial to feeding on nectar from the wild marjoram in our garden, these large red, white and black butterflies are on the wing in the UK from spring until late autumn.
Their caterpillars also have a preference for nettles, so leaving a patch of nettles to grow in a sunny spot is a great way to support Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma butterfly populations.
A red admiral butterfly
Other butterflies in the top ten most common butterflies in the UK include the infamous Small and Large Whites.
A large white butterfly on a flower
Large white
Although their caterpillars devour brassicas, these insects are an important part of the ecosystem. Last year, we left a few cabbages outside the mesh as caterpillar food keeping both us and the butterflies happy.
A close up of a small white butterfly on a flower
Small white
Finally, look out for the ubiquitous, but rather lovely Meadow Brown, the Gatekeeper (another brown and orange butterfly) and the Speckled Wood – a butterfly that generally inhabits dappled woodland.
A meadow brown butterfly on a flower
Meadow brown
A gatekeeper butterfly
Although last year I was thrilled to discover a newly emerged Speckled Wood resting on a hosta leaf in the back garden.
A speckled wood butterfly on a flower
Speckled wood
If you’d like to find out how good your lawn is for pollinators and get your own Personal Nectar Score, you can also take part in PlantLife’s Every Flower Counts survey from 11th -19th July.
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