All of a flutter about Suffolk’s butterflies

The Big Butterfly Count offers an opportunity to take a closer look at these winged beauties, and in Suffolk there are a number of locations where visitors can hope to see butterflies galore.

Images: Trevor Goodfellow and Ross Bentley

My interest in butterflies was ignited almost a decade ago after reading The Butterfly Isles, by Norfolk-based nature writer Patrick Barkham – a wonderfully fun and informative tale of the author’s quest to see every one of the 59 species of British butterfly in a single calendar year.

Up until that point, I only really knew about a handful of butterflies that passed through my garden: the brimstone – a yellow harbinger of spring; the omnipresent large and small whites; and the colourful small tortoiseshells and red admirals that bestowed their beauty as the hot weather arrived.

Barkham’s classic work opened my eyes to a world of lepidoptera I had taken little notice of. Each butterfly enjoys a specific habitat – be it heath, meadow, wood or chalk land – and its larvae feed on particular plants. The caterpillar of the orange tip enjoys cuckoo flower, for example, while the common blue larvae munch up the leaves of birds-foot trefoil. Nettles might not be attractive to us humans but the caterpillars of the comma and peacock butterflies (to name but a few) would be lost without them.

And what a transformation they undergo from caterpillar through pupa to emerge as stunningly colourful butterflies in what is known as their imago stage, which for many species lasts only a fleeting few weeks. There is a hint of alchemy surrounding butterflies, a sense of magic.

A manageable number

I was also drawn to the fact that there are only 59 species of butterflies that breed in or regularly visit our shores. As opposed to the hundreds of birds in Britain, I considered 59 to be a manageable number; a total I could work with, learn about and start ticking off my list. Naturalists are by nature nerdy (I am at the very amateur end of the naturalist nerd spectrum) and cannot help but keep a running total either in their head or written down – of the species they have seen and the ones they aim to find.

Back in Victorian times, this innate urge to somehow regulate and bring order to the wild led to enthusiasts capturing and killing butterflies in their thousands and pinning them out in display cases. Barkham’s book is full of tales of eccentric butterfly hunters of yesteryear, who rampaged across the countryside decked out in heavy tweed, carrying a large net and a ‘killing jar’ filled with ether or chloroform to asphyxiate their captives.  

Today, with butterflies depressingly scarce, taking butterflies home to keep is a definite no-no. Instead, specimens are documented by camera; the advances in digital photography meaning most people can now create beautiful images. The annual photography competition held by the Suffolk branch of Butterfly Conservation is testament to this trend.

Butterfly Conservation

If you want to learn more about butterflies, joining Butterfly Conservation is a great place to start.  It is a small, friendly charity, which in Suffolk (in non-Covid times) holds walks and talks – typically in beautiful parts of the county – where members can go along, enjoy a stroll and find out more about the butterflies they see along the way.  Its website also features regular updates of recent butterfly and moth sightings around the county.

I call Suffolk chairman Peter Maddison in late June to find out the current state of butterflies in the county and he tells me because of the chilly spring and the recent rain “everything is at least two weeks behind.” This means the butterflies we might expect to see at this time of year have not emerged yet because the weather is not favourable. Weather has a huge impact on butterfly numbers – a cold snap can wipe out larvae and pupae, a heatwave can wilt the plants they feed on.

Butterfly Conservation is the organisation behind the Big Butterfly Count, an initiative which encourages people to record and contribute information about the butterflies they have seen, to offer a snapshot of population numbers across the country. The introduction of an app for smart phones has made taking part much easier and last year more than 145,000 counts were registered.

The Big Butterfly Count takes place during the peak abundance of butterflies in the in the UK when the most widespread and numerous species are on the wing. This year it runs from July 15 to August 8.

Peter tells me that the past three years have been “good” butterfly years when a wide number of species have been spotted – holly blues and silver-washed fritillaries are two stand-out Suffolk success stories with a marked upturn in sightings. However, this small run of positive news is overshadowed by the long-term trend, which is that butterfly numbers are in decline – the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showing that almost half of species (27 out of 59) were recorded in below-average numbers in 2020. All the usual culprits – use of pesticides, loss of habitat, over-development – are to blame.

Magic places

But there are still a few precious places in Suffolk where people can experience an abundance of butterflies.

Locations I have visited that fit this description include Landseer Park in south Ipswich, a former landfill site, turned into a wildflower meadow park and urban haven for insect life. Expect to see Essex skippers and much more besides flitting through the lilac of field scabious; the flamboyant blue spikes of viper’s-bugloss; the yellow, honey-scented lady’s bedstraw.  A colony of marbled white butterflies – the butterfly that more than any other proves you do not need colour to be stunning – also reside there, while up in the adjoining woods, speckled wood and white letter hairstreak butterflies can be found.

Visit Westleton Heath to see a Suffolk speciality: the silver-studied blue, which has benefitted from conservation work to ensure it has a ready supply of bell heather, while a close examination of Sutton Heath near Sutton Hoo will be rewarded with sights of Graylings the master of camouflage whose underwing pattern makes it almost impossible to see among the ground foliage.

But for the me the number one place to see butterflies at this time of year is Bradfield Woods – a few miles south of Bury St Edmunds.  Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s careful management to create sunlit rides and glades through this ancient place has resulted in large numbers of silver-washed fritillaries racing each other along these green avenues. These are incredibly beautiful creatures: large and burnt orange in colour with intricate brown patterning. If you are lucky, you might even see a white admiral lurking in the shadows. And if you hit the jackpot, you might just catch a glimpse of a purple emperor powering up above through the canopy of oak trees.

The male butterfly is one of the most beautiful of all the butterflies found in the British Isles. From certain angles it appears to have black wings intersected with white bands but at a certain angle to the sun, the most beautiful purple sheen is displayed. It is an insect that until recent years has been missing from Suffolk, but this magnificent flyer is returning – and the Bradfield Woods reserve is a county stronghold.

We are emerging from the last of lockdown just as these wonderful creatures are emerging – it is a double celebration of the simple and finer things in life.

Find out more about the Big Butterfly Count at

This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of the Suffolk Magazine.

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