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Top tips for butterfly spotting

Adonis Blue butterfly
Adonis Blue butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Delicate and colourful, butterflies are a joyful sight, but they can be easily startled by our movements and shadows. Anyone can have a go at butterfly spotting and you don’t need special kit. Discover how to spot these beautiful flying insects without scaring them away – and what types of plants will attract them to your garden.

Take your time

Relax and take your time – butterflies will appear when ready, so don’t give up too soon. One of the best times to go butterfly spotting is when you’re already in your garden or on a walk, so you’ve got the time to enjoy the anticipation.

Butterflies are easiest to spot during calm, sunny conditions around the middle of day – this is when they’re most active. This isn’t a hard and fast rule though. You’ll see them in the early evening on hot days and on warm, cloudy days too.

Butterfly spotting doesn’t need to be painstaking. Simply head off on a walk and keep your eyes peeled.

Shadows and stillness

Be careful about casting shadows over settled butterflies. It can frighten them. Try to position yourself so your shadow doesn’t get in the way, or choose a time close to midday when you’ll have a smaller shadow.

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

A girl sits in a wildflower meadow looking for butterflies
Among the wildflowers on a butterfly walk at Saddlescombe | © National Trust Images/Neil Jakeman

Identifying butterflies

It takes 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.

Kit to help you

Although you can enjoy spotting butterflies without any special equipment, a good pair of binoculars can help you see their incredible colour and pattern. Do make sure you choose a pair with a close focus – there are so many good ones available now, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

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 you see them. You and your family could create a butterfly checklist and see how many you can spot.

A father holds his daughter in his arms as they look at a transparent pot containing a butterfly
Finding butterflies on a summer walk at Saddlescombe | © National Trust Images/Neil Jakeman

Gardening for butterflies

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 collectively named ‘pollinators’. Their flower colour and pollen attract butterflies.

Some varieties best for attracting butterflies are:

  • the butterfly bush, buddleia (davidii ‘Dartmoor’ and weyerana)
  • verbena bonariensis
  • flowering herbs marjoram and thyme
  • cone flower varieties, including echinacea and rudbeckia – their long-lasting blooms are great for bringing in butterflies in later summer.

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