London is a surprisingly good place to see butterflies. Over 26 different kinds (species) of butterfly can be seen in the green spaces across the capital. If you look hard, you can see perhaps 40 of the UK’s 59 species somewhere in London.
If managed for wildlife, any park in London (bigger than a few football pitches) could support 20 or more different types of butterfly. This is something to aspire to.
Here’s an overview of 24 butterflies you can see in London.
There are five butterflies that spend the winter as adults: Brimstone, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, and Comma. These are usually the first ones we see in the spring on a sunny day.
There are five butterflies that are mostly white: these are the Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, Orange Tip and Brimstone. These can be hard to tell apart, even for experienced observers. The female Orange Tip does not have any orange on the forewings and the female Brimstone is green-yellow, so both can be confused with the other whites. The Small White is common throughout London and can be seen almost anywhere.
Little Brown Jobs
These small butterflies are found in grassy areas: Small Skipper, Essex Skipper, Large Skipper, Brown Argus, and Small Copper. The Small and Essex Skippers are very similar, except that the Essex Skipper has black tips to its antennae.
London has two blue butterflies that are often seen: Common Blue and Holly Blue. The female Common Blue varies in colour from all brown to nearly all blue. The female Holly Blue has black tips to its wings. The Holly Blue is common across all of London: it's caterpillars feed on ivy in the autumn, so it's a good idea not to cut ivy down. All these photos are from Burgess Park.
These butterflies spend most of their time at the top of trees: the Purple Hairstreak on oaks, and the White-letter Hairstreak on elms. There are lots of elm trees in London's green spaces. Peckham Rye is a good place to see the White-letter Hairstreak butterflies in June - look at the top of the elms by Sexby Garden. You can see two White-letter Hairstreaks in their characteristic flight in this short YouTube video.
Most of these butterflies are seen in wildflower meadows: Marbled White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Heath, and Ringlet. The Speckled Wood likes dappled shade in wooded areas. Wildflower meadows are easy to create, and are full of insect life. Watch a short video of Marbled Whites in Burgess Park here.
The Painted Lady is a common migrant butterfly, making the long journey from north Africa every year and breeding on the way. The butterflies that reach London can include the children, grand-children and even great grand-children of the individuals that set off form Morocco in the early spring. Watch a short video of a Painted Lady butterfly feeding in Burgess Park here.
The Red Admiral and Large White also migrate from the continent, as well as breeding here.
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