Discover butterflies in the Chilterns Countryside

There are few more uplifting sights than a kaleidoscope of butterflies flittering amongst the flower heads in a summer meadow. To see butterflies is more than just heartening, they are also nature’s pointers, telling us that the environment is healthy, and that a host of plants, insects and other animals are also thriving. Their short life cycles make them vulnerable to changing conditions, and to loss of habitat, so they are good measures of environmental quality.

Special places

Every species of butterfly has its own special place or habitat, which provides it with food, shelter, places to breed, places to lay eggs and places to spend many months as growing caterpillars before they miraculous metamorphose into the beautiful and often short lived adult butterflies that we all enjoy. 

The National Trust owns several of these very special places in the Chiltern Hills where butterflies abound, and where you can see a range of common and not so common species.

These places consist of several endangered chalk grassland habitats and various woodland habitats, all of which require careful management to provide the ideal conditions for the survival and protection of these exceptional insects.

Duke of Burgundy - Hamearis Lucina - May to June - Bradenham, Ivinghoe Beacon
Duke of Burgundy - Hamearis Lucina

Chalk grassland

Chalk grassland is a rich, ancient and colourful habitat, but it is not entirely natural. As long ago as the Bronze Age, the land in the Chilterns was cleared of trees for grazing animals, so for over two thousand years, the cattle, sheep and rabbits introduced by people have helped to stop scrub species, such as hawthorn, bramble, dogwood and birch, from re-growing, and from shading out the sun-loving flowering plants that the butterflies enjoy. In some places the grazing animals  still do their work, nibbling off the young shoots of scrub plants, but the reduction in rabbit numbers, and the impracticality of introducing grazing sheep and cattle on some of our sites, means the National Trust rangers and volunteers sometimes have to lend a timely hand.

Small Copper - Lycaena phlaeas - May to October - wide variety of habitats
Small Copper - Lycaena phlaeas

Physically clearing some of the scrub vegetation allows the grassland, the wild flowers, the butterflies, and many other species to thrive once again. Initially, this may look destructive, but the landscape soon heals and the clearance is essential for maintaining the species diversity of the rare chalk grassland habitat. Some pockets of the scrub vegetation are kept for the benefit other creatures such as birds and small mammals.

Some of our best chalk grassland sites for butterflies include Watlington Hill, Coombe Hill, Bradenham, West Wycombe Hill and Ivinghoe Beacon.

Green Hairstreak - Callophrys rubi - April to July – Chalk grassland sites.
Green Hairstreak - Callophrys rubi

Woodlands

Some butterflies, such as the speckled wood and the silver-washed fritillary, enjoy the summer shade of woodlands, and they often feed on the nectar of flowering plants, such as ivy and wood sorrel, that grow on the woodland floor. You may find butterflies early in the morning, basking in small dappled pools of sunlight, or in clearings left by fallen trees. In places, woodlands can become, dense and almost impenetrable to light, preventing the smaller plants from growing. To help the butterflies, it is important to provide enough light for the flowering plants, on which and they feed, and this involves thinning out dense woodland, removing parts of the under-canopy and removing carefully selected trees and branches. This way, enough sunlight can penetrate through the tree canopy, allowing the woodland flowers to grow and to thrive.

Some of our best woodland sites for butterflies are at Bradenham, Pulpit Hill, Juniper Bank, Coombe Hill, Low Scrubs and Ashridge Forest.

Speckled Wood - Pararge aegeria - April to October – Woodland sites
Speckled Wood - Pararge aegeria

Taking a closer view

The photographs on this page show just some of the species found on the National Trust’s Chiltern Countryside sites, and the times of year you are most likely to see them. Some are quite elusive and you need to be patient. Walking slowly, or sitting still and waiting for them to come to you is far more effective than chasing after them. Once a butterfly has settled near you, approach stealthily and avoid casting your shadow over the insect. Never try to touch or to capture them. For some species, only a handful of butterflies may make up a breeding colony, so every individual is important.

Chalkhill Blue (Male) - Polyommatus coridon - July to September – Chalk grassland sites.
Chalkhill Blue (Male) - Polyommatus coridon

Find out more and play your part

If you would like to find out more about British butterflies, Steven Cheshire’s British Butterflies website is highly recommended.

Also, highly recommended is the Butterfly Conversation Smart app, available for iPhones or Androids, which is excellent for identifying butterflies. You can also use the app to contribute photographs and valuable scientific data to the Biological Records Centre (BRC). By doing so, you can play your part in butterfly conservation.

You can see some of our butterflies on our new butterfly trial at Bradenham

Gatekeeper - Pyronia tithonus

Bradenham Butterfly Trail

This is a short trail that can be walked at any time of the year, but to see butterflies it is at its best on a warm, dry day, without strong winds at any time between April and September. You are most likely to see the greatest variety of species between May and August.

Adonis Blue (male) - Polyommatus bellargus - May to June, August to September – Chalk grassland
Adonis Blue (male) - Polyommatus bellargus