Vanessids (Family Nymphalidae)

Descriptions & images of the 7 Vanessid species resident in Hampshire.

The Vanessids include several of our most colourful and best-known butterflies, including the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Lady. They are all-powerful flyers, a characteristic which has facilitated migrations to this country from warmer climates. As members of family Nymphalidae, they have only two pairs of walking legs, the front pair having evolved to become dysfunctional brush-like appendages held below the head.  

Occurrence (distribution based on 1km squares) and abundance (total population) trend data, extracted from the report "The State Of The UK's Butterflies 2015" published by Butterfly Conservation, is shown for each species and indicates the change in distribution and population during the last four decades (1976 - 2014) at UK national level. 

Comma - Polygonia c-album

Wingspan: ~50-65mm

 1976 - 2014 Distribution change: +57%, 1976 - 2014 Population change: +150%

The main summer generation also includes a form 'hutchinsoni 'with lighter colouration.


The Comma is a very distinctive butterfly in view of its scalloped wing shape, rich orange-brown colour and curious 'comma' marking on its underside wing. The unusual wing shape and dark underside colouring allows it to resemble a dead leaf when its wings are closed - the perfect camouflage for hibernating adults. The comma is essentially a butterfly of open woodlands, where Common Nettles provide the main foodplant for its larvae and flowers such as thistles, knapweed and hemp agrimony provide nectar sources for the adults. In the autumn they will often be found feeding on ripe fruit and berries. The Comma's love of flowering shrubs such as buddleia means it is also a frequent garden visitor. The main summer generation also includes a form hutchinsoni with a lighter colouration and more variegated undersides. A century ago the Comma was an uncommon butterfly in the UK but has since expanded its range and increased its abundance, although it may now have reached its peak, with most recent figures indicating a slight decline.

When to see: March/April for the adults which have emerged from hibernation to seek a mate. July and early August for the main summer brood, consisting of both normal and hutchinsoni forms. The late summer generation of Comma butterflies, emerge in late August/September before hibernation in October.

Where to see: The butterfly is widespread in Hampshire and found in open woodland or close to woodland where there are plentiful nectar sources and nettles, as well as in gardens. Noar Hill is an example of a good site., but there are many others.

Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui

Wingspan: ~60-75mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +14%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +133%

The male and female Painted Lady are  similar in appearance.


In the UK the Painted Lady is a regular migrant (from N Africa) and hence its numbers can vary significantly from year to year. The initial arrivals to our shores in spring will breed to produce a summer generation starting to emerge in late July. Occasionally (typically about once per decade), there is a very large migrant influx of Painted Ladies, such as in 2009 and 2019, leading to a very large emergence of UK born offspring. In these years Painted Ladies can become almost ubiquitous and abundant. The butterflies favour open areas such as hillsides, chalk downland, lanes, fields or waste ground and gardens where there is plentiful supply of nectar such as thistles or clover. Thistles are also the main larval foodplant.

When to see: Late July and August are normally the best periods to observe this migratory species, however, as indicated above numbers can vary significantly from year to year.

Where to see: Examples of sites in Hampshire to look for the butterfly include Old Winchester Hill and Noar Hill. In good years they are frequent visitors to gardens managed to encourage butterflies, with buddleia being a favourite.

Peacock - Inachis io 

Wingspan: ~65-75mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +16%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +17%

The male and female Peacock are similar in appearance.


The Peacock is a familiar and unmistakable species, with its 'peacock' eyes and rich reddish brown colouring. In contrast the underside is almost black providing good camouflage when the wings are closed. The butterflies can be found almost anywhere but perhaps most frequently in open woodlands, adorning gardens and where there are plentiful nectar sources such as thistles, knapweed, hemp agrimony, clover and flowering garden shrubs. The gregarious larva feed on Common Nettle. Incidentally the 'eyes' are believed to be a defence mechanism to warn off predators, by flashing the wings open momentarily, sometimes accompanied by a hissing noise made by rubbing the fore and back wings together. The eyes serve a secondary function to divert a predatory attack from the more vulnerable body.

When to see: The summer generation of butterflies emerge in late July/August and hibernate in early September. They are one of the first butterflies to emerge from hibernation in spring and can often be seen as early as March, through until late May.

Where to see: Gardens with plenty of flowering shrubs such as buddleia will almost certainly attract Peacocks. Noar Hill and Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure) are two examples of good locations but there are many more open woodland sites to see this species.

Purple Emperor - Apatura iris 

Wingspan: ~70-90mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -47%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +69%


The Purple Emperor is the largest species of butterfly resident in Hampshire (the largest UK species is the Swallowtail which is only found in the fenlands of East Anglia). It can be found in the larger woodlands of the county but is an elusive butterfly to observe, partly because it is uncommon, but also because the adults spend much of their time high in the tree canopy. The males select a so called 'master tree' (often a tall oak on higher ground ), where they perch to look out for passing females, but chasing off other males after an 'aerial duel' of great acrobatic skill and speed. The butterflies rarely feed on flowers but sometimes come to the ground to feed from puddles, carcasses, animal droppings, rotting fruit and even land on people. The females, which are slightly larger but lack the purple sheen, lay their eggs on sallow, which is the main larval foodplant.

When to see: The Purple Emperor has only one generation each year. The adults emerge in late June/early July and the season lasts little more than a month. The second and third weeks of July are typically when numbers are likely to be greatest.

Where to see: The Purple Emperor is present in several of Hampshire's larger woodlands and forests including Alice Holt Forest, Bentley Wood (on the Hants/Wilts border), Whiteley Walks/Botley Wood, and the woodlands of Farley Mount Country Park (especially West Wood), but surprisingly there are few records from the New Forest. Whilst the butterfly may be present, some woods are much better than others for observation, and probably the best places in Hampshire to observe the species are Alice Holt Forest (particularly Straits, Goose Green and Abbotts Wood Inclosures) and Bentley Wood, particularly around the Tytherley car park and the track heading west called the switchback, as far as the first cross tracks. 

Red Admiral - Vanessa atlanta

 Wingspan: ~65-75mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +25%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +257%


The Red Admiral's familiarity as a frequent garden visitor and striking appearance, with bright scarlet bands against a black background, make it one of our best known species. The UK population is now less dependant than it used to be on the influx of migrant butterflies from abroad which arrive here during the spring. Climate change has enabled many adult butterflies to over-winter here and they can even be seen in flight on the milder winter days. Indeed the Red Admiral is the most commonly recorded species in winter. Offspring from hibernators and arrivals from migration can be seen in our gardens though to late summer and autumn. The larvae feed on Common Nettle.

When to see: As indicated it is possible to see a Red Admiral on virtually any day of the year but late summer (August/September) is when they are at their peak.

Where to see: Gardens with flowering shrubs, but any flower-rich environment, including woodland and downland, will usually produce a few of these handsome butterflies. 

Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae 

Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -15%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -73%

The male and female Small Tortoiseshell are  similar in appearance.


The Small Tortoiseshell used to be one of our most familiar and colourful butterflies, being found almost anywhere, from woodland, commons, lanes and waste ground too, of course, gardens. However, it suffered a tumultuous period of decline during the early 2000s which is not fully explained, and as a result, the species has become generally quite scarce in Hampshire, with fluctuations from year to year giving little confidence that the population is stabilising. The larvae feed on Common Nettle.

When to see: The main summer brood is on the wing from late June until early August with a further generation in September. The butterflies hibernate through the winter, the brown underside providing good camouflage. The butterflies re-appear in April post hibernation to seek a mate.

Where to see: In principle, the butterflies can be found anywhere as described by their main haunts above. Since the species is now quite scarce, a few sightings at a location should be considered a good result, with sightings in double figures only occasionally recorded in the county.  

White Admiral - Limenitis camilla

Wingspan: ~55-65mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -25%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -59%

The male and female White Admiral are similar in appearance.


The flight of the White Admiral is a joy to watch as it gracefully makes its way along woodland glades, intricately weaving its way through the overhanging boughs or dropping to lower levels to feed on its favourite flowers of bramble. It is a true woodland species but is selective in the woods it chooses to inhabit, with the right mixture of sun and shade together with plentiful wild honeysuckle, which is the larval foodplant. The butterfly's liking for brambles results in the wings soon becoming damaged or torn. Sadly, the White Admiral is a species which is in long term decline, with the most recent data providing no encouragement that the overall downward trend is being halted.

When to see: There is one main generation per year, the adults normally start to appear from mid-June with the season lasting typically until late July. In view of the rapid deterioration in their condition, early July is usually the best time to plan a visit to see this species. Occasionally, in the warmest years, a  few second generation butterflies are reported in late September from one or two woodland sites.

Where to see: The White Admiral is present a several of Hampshire's woodlands - Bentley Wood. Pamber Forest, Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure) and Portland Coppice are good sites. In the New Forest, the butterfly can be found in the shadier inclosures such as Pondhead. A count in double figures during any woodland visit would be considered a very good outcome.