Rarely seen butterfly spotted at Sheringham Park

Purple emperor butterfly
Published : 02 Aug 2017

One of Britain's most elusive butterflies has been spotted at the National Trust’s Sheringham Park in Norfolk.

There have been two sightings of the Purple Emperor at Sheringham Park in recent weeks. This species is rarely seen in Norfolk; instead it tends to occur in larger woodlands in southern England. 

An elusive butterfly

The Purple Emperor is Britain’s second-largest butterfly with a wing span of 8cm. Despite its size, it’s one of our most elusive insects. It is rarely seen because it typically spends most of its time flying high in the tree canopy. At Sheringham Park, the viewing towers overlook the tree tops, giving rangers and visitors a fighting chance to spot one. 

Spotted in the tree canopy

Unlike other rare butterflies that can be found in great numbers when conditions are favourable, the Purple Emperor lives at a very low density.

If you are lucky enough to encounter one this summer, you’ll notice the males of this beautiful butterfly have an iridescent purple or bluish sheen to the upper surface of the wings when viewed from a certain angle.

It’s the males that set up their territories and set off in pursuit of any females that come into their patch and also defend this area from intruders and potential rivals. The adults feed on honeydew produced by aphids and tree sap high in the canopy, rather than on flowers on the ground, that you’d typically associate as a food source for butterflies. 

You'll also be able to enjoy a pretty special view
View over the Norfolk Coast
You'll also be able to enjoy a pretty special view

Our butterfly expert

National Trust butterfly specialist Matthew Oates has spent almost 50 years chasing Purple Emperors around the country. Butterflying from childhood, Matthew Oates has kept a diary of his findings since 1952.

He’s considered one of the country’s leading purple emperor experts, if not the purple emperor expert.

" At Sheringham Park the National Trust is looking after the sallows the butterfly favours. Recently, people have worked out how to look for this elusive giant, which is why it's been discovered at Sheringham. I'm delighted that Norfolk has declared itself well and truly Purple."
- Matthew Oates, specialist volunteer on butterflies