Orange tip butterfly

Beautiful butterflies

Adrian Thomas takes a trip down memory lane to discover how the B in RSPB stands for more than just birds.

Every caterpillar counts

For almost 25 years now, my own personal journey with the RSPB has been rather bound up with the beautiful world of butterflies.  

 It can still surprise some people that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds works to look after things other than birds, but when you think about it, it makes absolute sense. After all, birds rely on the whole ecosystem being healthy. A place that is rich in plants and insects is likely to then be great for birds, too (and for us!). 

Our 200+ nature reserves include some of the most nature-rich places in the UK, places that are blessed with as many rare flowers, beetles and butterflies as there are birds. As custodians of these magnificent places, it’s our responsibility and pleasure to look after the whole intricate web of life. 

Swallowtail butterfly
Swallowtail caterpillar
Swallowtail caterpillar

Searching for swallowtails

Back in 1996, my first job with the RSPB was as a very youthful residential volunteer at Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk. One of my tasks there was to count the caterpillars of the ultra-rare but incredibly spectacular swallowtail. 

 This Art Deco masterpiece of a butterfly, Britain’s largest, is only found now in nature reserves in the Norfolk Broads. To count them I had to scramble delicately in my wellies (not easy, I can tell you!) through giant beds of reeds looking for their astonishing caterpillars. Mint-green, black and orange, they look like something out of Alice in Wonderland. 

Protecting fritillaries and hairstreaks

After university, I came straight back to the RSPB, and to Blean Woods National Nature Reserve in Kent. Here, the RSPB works with a range of partners to manage an amazing woodland that is the prime site in the whole of the UK for the heath fritillary butterfly. Heath fritillaries are found in just four small areas in the UK, so our focus at ‘The Blean’ is as much on them as the nightingales and nightjars there. 


A few decades later, butterflies are still a feature of my work. Only last winter, I was at Otmoor in Oxfordshire helping create the right habitats for two very rare butterflies called the black hairstreak and the brown hairstreak. The ‘hairstreak’ in their names is a thin white line across their wingsI love the fact that they look like they have black and white striped stockings! 

Working from downland to mountaintop

Today, with the support of our members, the RSPB is helping protect the most vulnerable butterflies in the UK 

On the Isle of Wight we’re restoring flower-rich downland for rare beauties such as the chalkhill blue and Adonis blue (Adonis of course being the Greek god of beauty – and this butterfly lives up to its name, being the bluest blue you’ll see). 

 In Northern Ireland we’re looking after marsh fritillaries. In the Lake District and Scotland we’re saving mountain ringlets. And up in the magnificent Cairngorm Mountains, weve been running a project to help save the Kentish glory – actually a day-flying moth, but it looks as beautiful as any butterfly. 

Why do butterflies need your help?

Butterflies in the UK are in long-term decline, compared with the glory days of the past when every lane and meadow was awash with them. The latest figures show that the range of over 70% of UK species has contracted since 1976, with urban areas faring slightly worse than the countryside.  

The good news is, we know that simple measures can help turn the fortunes of butterflies.  

Every action counts. When you plant a flower or shrub that provides essential nectar for butterflies, you’re making a difference.  

Common blue butterfly
Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtail caterpillar

If you want to make an even bigger difference, consider joining the RSPB – your membership donation supports the work we do to boost populations of threatened butterflies.

Working together like this, from your back garden to the UK’s wildest landscapes, we can really turn things around for our brilliant butterflies.