Butterflies & Moths

Butterflies are very colourful insects in our countryside; the less often seen, largely nocturnal, moths can be as attractive. There is no inherent difference between the two: all butterflies fly during the day and most moths fly at night. In the UK we have about 59 resident species of butterfly 27 of which have been recorded at Holtspur Bank LNR along with 2 species which may fly over from Europe. These are the Painted Lady and the Clouded Yellow. In contrast there are some 2500 moths in this country of which 149 have been recorded at Holtspur Bank LNR.


The earliest butterflies to be seen each year are those which hibernate as adults. These are peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, and comma which can be seen on any warm day from January onwards. The peacock has a striking “peacock eye” on each wing, in flight they look almost black. The red admiral is a similar size and has a white streak on the wing. The small tortoiseshell is an orange and brown butterfly as is the comma. The comma has ragged edged wings with a white comma mark on the underside of the wing. Brimstones, which lay eggs on buckthorn, are also seen early in the year. The male of the species is bright yellow and flies continuously looking for the pale greenish females which appear slightly later. They mate during April/ May, lay eggs on buckthorn bushes, and a new generation emerges in late July to start the cycle again.


From late April onwards, the first of the new season butterflies emerge. The orange tip, large and small white, green-veined white, holly blue, and green hairstreak. Only the male orange tip lives up to the description, the female being almost white. Only the large and small whites have larvae that eat cabbage, and it can be a challenge to identify these from the green-veined white and the females of the brimstone and orange tip.

Orange tip male

The small green hairstreak is our only true green butterfly; its flight is rapid and jerky, making it hard to follow, whilst when settled on leaves of the buckthorn, its colour makes it almost impossible to spot. There are at least four species of blue butterfly to be seen on the reserve, the holly blue is the earliest and the only one which will fly up amongst the trees and shrubs, rather than keeping low down over the grass and flowers. Other species to emerge in early June are common blue, brown argus and small copper. They are all small, but distinctive members of the “blue” family. The skippers include the dingy skipper, which is a small, dull brown butterfly as well as the large, small and Essex skippers which are small orange brown butterflies with a distinctive darting flight across the grassland.

Hedge brown or Gatekeeper

Towards the middle of June, the true summer butterflies appear, having passed through their larval stages during the spring. Five or six of these are known as the “summer browns” an appropriate description, although they are far from being dull brown. One species is more white than brown, this being the marbled white with a chequered pattern of black squares on a white wing. This is a classic butterfly of the Chiltern grassland, and unmistakable: it features in the Holtspur Bank LNR logo. Other “browns” include the meadow brown, small heath, and the gatekeeper, otherwise known as the hedge brown from its habit of flying along hedges and banks rather than the open grass favoured by the meadow brown. The ringlet is a very dark brown and has conspicuous golden rings on the underside. It is more a species of shady damper spots. By the end of July, the ringlet and marbled white are gone, but the meadow brown can be around until September.

Common blue male

In the woodland area at the top of oak trees the small purple hairstreak has been seen.

Another member of the “browns”, the speckled wood, dark brown with many yellow spots, is an early species to emerge and remains around until early autumn; it favours the shadier parts of the Reserve hedges and woodland.

The dark green fritillary can be seen on the Reserve. It is a large orange butterfly that flies over the grassland.

Depending on the weather across Europe, visitors such as clouded yellow and painted lady may be seen on the Reserve.


Although the majority of moths are night flying, with so many species there are quite a number that are day flying. The black and red striped cinnabar can be seen in May/June, while the smaller black and red six-spot burnet moths, with their bee-like flight, can be seen in June/July. These are examples of moths with warning colours; conspicuous because they are poisonous if eaten by other animals. The silver Y, another very common moth that comes from Europe, can be seen throughout the summer. It is greyish with a conspicuous white “Y” mark on the forewings, a rapid darting flight and, even when feeding from flowers, the wings continue to beat rapidly.

In good summers, the humming bird hawk moth may be seen; medium size, grey and orange, its flight is even more rapid than the silver Y and it hovers above its nectar flowers, feeding through its long tongue.

As with the butterflies, the best way to learn to recognise them is by joining one of the organised walks and activities on the reserve. More information about local butterflies and moths can be found on the website of the Upper Thames branch of Butterfly Conservation