Top tips for butterfly spotting

Matthew Oates taking visitors on a wildlife walk in the grounds of Osterley Park, Middlesex.
Expert advice from Matthew Oates will help your hunt National Trust Images / Oskar Proctor

Our nature expert, Matthew Oates, has over 50 years of butterfly spotting experience under his belt, so we’ve asked him to share some top tips to help you on your way to spotting these beautiful insects.

'Anyone can have a go at butterfly spotting,' says Matthew, 'whether it is in your garden, your local park or on one of our gorgeous nature reserves. One of my favourite places is Watlington Hill, I can spend hours there but it is always worth the wait.

'If you relax and take your time, butterflies will appear when they’re good and ready, so don’t give up too soon. Fishermen make good butterfly spotters, as they’re used to waiting around for a catch.'

Take your time

One of the best times to go butterfly spotting is when you’re on your holiday, so you’ve got the time to sit and enjoy the anticipation. It takes many years to master butterfly identification, so start with the easy ones until your confidence has built up. The common butterflies are just as beautiful as the rarities, and much easier for children to spot.

There are over 60 types of butterflies in the UK so a spotting guide can help you identify them by their colour, pattern and where they are. 'You and your family could create a butterfly checklist and see how many you can spot,' says Matthew.

Though butterflies can be enjoyed without any special equipment, a good pair of binoculars can help you see their incredible colour and pattern. Don’t send yourself cross-eyed trying to use binoculars that don’t have a close-focus – there are so many good ones in the market now that you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Cast no shadow

'Be careful about casting shadows over settled butterflies,' warns Matthew. 'It can frighten them.' Try to position yourself so your shadow isn’t going to get in the way. 'Take into account what time of day it is: you’ll have a smaller shadow in the middle of the day,' says our butterfly expert.

Butterflies are delicate creatures and can be startled by sudden, jerky movements. 'Even pointing at them can spook them,' advises Matthew. If you do spook a butterfly, 'just stand quietly and watch until it settles down,' he says. 'Then try to approach it again - it will often return to the same plant.'

If you’re hoping to spot butterflies in your own garden, the type of plants you grow is very important. The best garden plants are buddleia (davidii ‘Dartmoor’ and weyerana), Verbena bonariensis, marjoram and old-fashioned Michaelmas daises.

Time for one final tip from Matthew: 'Butterfly spotting doesn’t need to be painstaking. Simply take yourself off on a walk and keep your eyes peeled.'

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