The earlier pictures were taken on my wee compact Canon ixus 970IS, which involved sneaking up on the butterflies. This can be very frustrating when they fly off, but very rewarding when they don't!

Since 2012 I have been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ150, which allows me to zoom in to the butterflies from a couple of metres away.

Monday, 5 March 2012

East Lothian Butterflies

I live in East Lothian in South East Scotland. Although this is quite a rural area it is intensively farmed and there are very few areas of natural habitat. Every field is ploughed right up to the edges, ditches dug straight and clear and any remaining hedges are cut to within an inch of their lives! All in the name of producing more food, but in reality much of the wheat and barley grown here goes for the production of spirits!
Given the lack of habitat, it is amazing that butterflies occur here at all. There are about 15 species that are regularly seen here.

One of the first butterflies that we see here is the Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae. This overwinters as an adult and will wake up from hibernation on sunny days in February.

Another butterfly that survives the winter is the Peacock, Aglais io. This has only really become common up here over the last 25 years or so.

A bit of a newcomer to East Lothian is the Comma, Polygonia c-album. I remember being really excited when I saw my first one in 2006. A few more were seen the next year and the number has gradually increased. They now are breeding here and managing to over-winter. Is this a sign of climate change?

For me, the butterfly season really starts when Green-veined Whites, Pieris napi, start to appear. They over-winter as a chrysalis and emerge early in April.

The other butterfly to start appearing at the same time is the Small White, Pieris rapae. This one is laying eggs on a cabbage in our garden!

Towards the middle of April my favourite butterfly, the Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines, starts to appear. They only have one generation a year here, and only survive until about June depending on the weather.

The under-side of the Orange Tip wings are marbled white and green. When they completely close their wings they are beautifully camouflaged amongst the small white flowers of its food plant, Garlic Mustard.

Large Whites, Pieris brassicae, start to appear in May. These are never really common here and I am not sure why as the caterpillars feed on the same food plants as the much more common Small White.

There tends to be a bit of a lull in butterfly numbers in June. The first generation of the above butterflies are dwindling and their young haven't yet appeared. A lot of species emerge in July.

The Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperantus, spends most of its life as a caterpillar. The adult appears in July and is on the wing until the end of August. It is a lovely little butterfly which has a very floppy style of flying!

The Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, also appears in July and is found in similar grassy areas as the Ringlet.

The Common Blue, Polyomatus icarus, is a beautiful butterfly that can be quite plentiful at some coastal sites.

The Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, has two generations a year. They are more common during the second generation from July to September. The male is very territorial and will fly up from a chosen flower or rock to see off any other insect that dares to fly by.

The Dark-green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja, is a spectacular butterfly that is found in a few locations in East Lothian, where its food plant, Dog Violet, grows. For such a large butterfly it is a very small food plant!

The Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus, is a very common butterfly on coastal grasslands. (For some reason this photo has loaded sideways!)

We have two summer visitors that come up from Europe. The first is the Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. This breeds here in the summer and the butterflies that hatch try to over-winter. The do appear in late winter on warm sunny days, but it is thought that they don't survive to go on to breed.

The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, also comes here in late summer. These migrate here from Northern Africa, although the ones that arrive here are most likely a second generation produced in Europe.

Considering the lack of habitat we don't do too badly for butterflies here. I do worry, though about the continuing destruction of the remaining areas where they can breed.


  1. Great post, with so much good info. And some really lovely shots. I desperately want to see the Inachis io. They are in China, so I hope to find one eventually. Fantastic shot of that Heath! Wow, we have a similar one in the NW of the US, and they drive me crazy chasing them. I can never get a really good shot. Well done.

  2. Sylvia,
    The Peacock is a truly beautiful butterfly. I think we take it for granted here, as it is a reasonably common butterfly. It is interesting to hear that they also occur in China. I will have to find our more about their distribution. They only started occurring here in the 1980s and they are slowly spreading northwards.
    I think the Small Heath is called a Ringlet of some kind in the USA? They can be very numerous here in coastal grassland and in the hills.

  3. Yes, they are called Ringlet in the US...there are two: Coenonympha tullia & Coenonympha haydenii. They seem to have quite a bit of variation in Washington and Idaho at least, but basically they look exactly like yours.