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Butterflies at Bookham Commons

Purple Emperor butterfly
Purple Emperor butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Visit Bookham Commons on a warm, sunny day and you’ll see many wonderful butterflies fluttering over the commons. July is a good time to come when three key species are on the wing – purple emperor, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary.

Purple emperor

The purple emperor is our largest (female wingspan is 70-92mm) and most impressive butterfly. It inhabits three annually used territories on the commons.

Where to look

The most well-known and visited is Hill Farm, where High Point Path suddenly begins to climb uphill. There are two other annually used territories close to the Mark Oak car park. Here the tallest turkey oak has been used for many years.

Food plant: goat willow and grey willow

Areas on the commons are managed to promote the young growth of willow in accessible areas, such as the ‘scallops’ that have been created along carefully widened woodland rides. Recent studies suggest that large groups of willow are especially attractive to egg-laying female purple emperors on the common.

White Admiral butterfly, female, Hampshire
White Admiral butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

White admiral

The white admiral has a graceful flight and soars, and glides close to the contours of oak trees. It’s smaller than the purple emperor and has more rounded wings.

Where to look

The sunny rides and tracks, avoiding the more open areas. High Point Path is a particularly good location.

Food plant: honeysuckle in partial shade

White admiral females look for shady honeysuckle leaves to lay their small, shiny grey/brown, sea-urchin-like (including the spines) eggs. If too many shade providers, oaks and scrub hazels, are removed from the woodland edge the interior sunny honeysuckle leaves will be abandoned by the white admirals.

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly, orange-coloured with dark chequered markings, feeding on nectar on a pale pink blackberry flower, in a north Dorset wood
Silver-washed fritillary feeding on nectar on a blackberry flower | © National Trust Images/Clive Whitbourn

Silver-washed fritillary

The silver-washed fritillary is a large orange-brown butterfly chequered with black spots. The male is brighter in colour, but the female is slightly larger.

Where to look

High Point Path, together with the white admirals along the sunny, widened rides and tracks. Females can be seen busily depositing their eggs in the shadier areas.

Food plant: violet, shady woodland floor

Silver-washed fritillary females, after finding violet leaves on the woodland floor, deposit their eggs on nearby tree trunks, most often oak at Bookham.

The violets must be growing in dappled shade and not overgrown by brambles and grasses. After hatching, within a fortnight, the tiny larvae immediately hibernate in the crevices of the oak bark, not emerging to feed upon violet leaves until the following spring.

More butterflies...

You can also find common blue and small blue butterflies on the plains. This area is managed in the summer by cattle grazing, which frees their caterpillar foodplants (bird's-foot trefoil and sorrel) from choking grasses.

Other grassland species, the small skipper and Essex skipper, thrive where trees have been cleared over recent years and prolific grass has been allowed to grow. Reduced numbers can also be seen on the plains.

A view into the far distance at Bookham Commons in Surrey with gentle hills covered in heathland and pine forests

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Find out how to get to Bookham Commons, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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