Much of the countryside and coastline surrounding Falmouth is unspoilt and includes a rich diversity of natural habitats supporting a wide variety of butterfly species. Both within the town itself and close-by there are also several nationally recognised gardens open to the public which act like magnets to butterflies.

Flight times for species can be several weeks earlier than for much of the UK because of the milder climate. The sighting of the Speckled Wood shown above on 13 January 2012 in a Falmouth garden was one of the earliest records of this species ever recorded in the UK and, although an extraordinary occurrence, does illustrate how unseasonably warm weather can induce the early emergence of butterflies.

What species of butterfly can be seen and at what time of year?

The first butterflies to be seen are those such as the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and even the migratory Red Admiral that over-winter in sheltered places such as garden sheds, log piles, conservatories and greenhouses. Sunlight can soon warm these places to sufficient temperatures to awake butterflies from their dormancy. Consequently it is possible to see all these species in the Falmouth area during the first months of the year. The offspring of these will then be seen later in the summer.

The Holly Blue is relatively common not only in the surrounding countryside but also surprisingly abundant in gardens in Falmouth where it can be seen as early as late March. At this time of year it is the only likely blue butterfly to be on the wing and so can easily be identified. In flight it often appears quite pale and when settled rarely rests with its wings splayed wide open.

Early in the year, between March and May, Speckled Woods can often be seen during walks anywhere along the South West Coast Path close to woodlands and sheltering hedgerows. Two reliable places to see them are on a walk on the South West Coast Path from Rosemullion Head to the mouth of the Helford estuary. Orange-tip butterflies are fairly common in the countryside around Falmouth and are on the wing between April and June. They may appear in gardens but are more often seen along hedgerows and roadside verges. The orange tipped wings of the males make them unmistakable but the females are mainly white with black tips and can easily be mistaken for one of the white butterflies.

All three white species of butterfly found in the UK, Large White, Small White and Green-veined White, are common in Falmouth gardens and the surrounding countryside. They can have multiple broods and can be seen at any time between March and October. Numbers can also be swollen by migrants from the continent.

In the summer, between May and September, the most likely blue butterfly to be seen is the Common Blue. This beautiful species is mostly seen along the South West Coast Path and inland on unimproved and grazed grasslands. It is a species that can wander some distance and has been seen in Falmouth gardens such as Queen Mary Gardens close to Gyllyngvase beach.

The Wall Brown is a butterfly that, although never numerous, is commonly seen on the South West Coast Path between April and October. It has a habit of sunning itself on bare ground and so is often disturbed from worn coastal paths. The Small Copper is a dazzling little butterfly commonly seen in small numbers in and around Falmouth between April and October. It can be found in many varied habitats including gardens and may be seen anywhere along the coastal path from St Anthony Head on the tip of the Roseland peninsula to the Helford River.

The Gatekeeper is a common butterfly seen mainly between July and September. It is as common inland as along the coast and may appear in gardens as well as along the hedges beside open fields. It is sometimes referred to as The Hedge Brown because of its association with hedges and walkers often disturb it near gates from where it derives its more common name. It may often be found feeding in late summer on bramble flowers. The Meadow Brown is a common butterfly found both in Falmouth gardens and the nearby countryside. It can be found almost anywhere on unimproved grassland, open woodlands, hedges and on heaths.

The Large Skipper is not a common butterfly in the countryside around Falmouth but can be seen between June and August. Its favoured habitat is long unimproved grassland and it has been recorded from the coastal paths. The Ringlet is a common butterfly around Falmouth and can turn up almost anywhere, in gardens, in woody areas, in open countryside and along the coast. It has a fairly short, single-brooded flight period between June and August.

The Silver-washed Fritillary is an uncommon butterfly around Falmouth due its liking for suitable oak woodlands. However, between July and September it is recorded in and on the edge of woodlands around the Helford estuary. In late summer it may be found feeding on bramble flowers and wild buddleia on the edge of woodlands.

The magnificent Red Admiral is the most common migrant butterfly to be found around Falmouth and can be seen in small numbers at almost any time of the year. However, often later in the summer and autumn there can be large movements of these butterflies both incoming from the continent or UK butterflies moving south and a dozen or more nectaring on buddleia bushes is a wonderful sight. Lots of wild-growing, butterfly-attracting buddleias can be seen in and around Falmouth and a particularly impressive flowering display can be seen on a walk from Flushing to Trefusus Point.

From June onwards the strongly scented purple flowers of wild buddleias attract many species including migrant Red Admirals and Painted Ladies that may have travelled from as far away as North Africa and southern Europe. The number of migrant butterflies is variable from year to year and is influenced by weather systems over the continent. The Clouded Yellow butterfly is one of the rarer migrants but in some years they too can be seen in numbers.

Butterflies to look out for

The dazzling Green Hairstreak butterfly is very uncommon in the Falmouth area but has been recorded in the past and is present in other parts of Cornwall, particularly near to the coast. It is an extremely territorial butterfly and the males will dash out from on top of a hedge or gorse bush beside a path to investigate walkers or any other butterfly, regardless of species! If you’re lucky enough to see one sitting in the sun it is a truly magnificent sight with its glistening metallic green wings.

Rare migrants

Falmouth has a reputation for sightings of rare migrant butterflies from the continent. Short-tailed Blue, Long-tailed Blue and Bath White have all been recorded in the past. In the autumn during the North American hurricane season Monarch butterflies are annually recorded in Cornwall. So you never know!

Butterfly sites within an hour of Falmouth

For butterfly enthusiasts who wish to see other rarer species there are excellent sites where you can expect to see Silver-studded Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Grizzled Skipper and Grayling.

There are multiple sites for some of these species but here are some that we favour and all the family can enjoy:

  • Penhale Sands near Newquay on the north coast of Cornwall – Dark Green Fritillary, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Silver-studded Blue and Brown Argus
  • Kynance Cove on the Lizard – Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Grayling
  • Windmill Farm Nature Reserve on the Lizard – Marsh Fritillary and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Useful links

Recommended reading is A Cornwall Butterfly Atlas

Records of butterfly sightings are welcomed by the recorder for the Cornish branch of Butterfly Conservation.

Links to other parts of the Illustrated Falmouth Wildlife Guide

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