Photographing Butterflies in North Wales – An Annual Obsession

By Richard Glynne Jones

Richard Glynne Jones, ARPS, is a naturalist, photographer and Dynamic Dunescapes Volunteer. Here he explores the threats that our butterflies face with a changing climate and increased habitat loss, and shares his passion for identifying and photographing the species he spots in North Wales.

Many cultures relate butterflies to the human soul. In ancient Greece, thanks to Aristotle, the word for butterfly is "psyche" which means "soul".  The most famous classical myth associated with butterflies is that of Psyche and Eros. The romantic and cultural links between butterflies and the human soul appear to have been with us for centuries. People view and have viewed butterflies as important. However, the plight of butterflies in the UK is a cause of great concern. But the dune habitat can offer a reasonably constant habitat for certain butterflies.

Dark green fritillary. Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Dark gree fr

Butterflies are highly sensitive indicators of the health of our environment playing crucial roles in the food chain as well as being pollinators of plants. Butterflies and moths have been recognised by as indicators of biodiversity. Their fragility makes them quick to react to change so their struggle to survive is a serious warning about our environment. Habitats have been destroyed on a massive scale, and now patterns of climate and weather are shifting unpredictably in response to pollution of the atmosphere. But the disappearance of these beautiful creatures is more serious than just a loss of colour in the countryside.

The UK has 59 species of butterflies and two regular migrants. Five species of butterfly have become extinct in the last 150 years. The State of the UK’s Butterflies Report 2015 found that 76% of the UK’s resident butterflies declined in abundance, occurrence or both, over the last four decades.

The Big Butterfly Count is an annual nationwide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment, run by the charity Butterfly Conservation. It was launched in 2010, and it has rapidly become the biggest survey of butterflies in the world. Over 113,000 people took part in 2019, submitting 116,009 counts of butterflies, and day-flying moths from across the UK. The survey will help to assess the current plight of our butterflies, and hopefully contribute to establishing what needs to be done to preserve this precious part of our natural environment.

Small pearl bordered fritillary, Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Russian lettuce, Image: Richard Glynn Jones
Russian lettuce, Image: Richard Glynn Jones

As Sir David Attenborough, the president of charity Butterfly Conservation, said recently: “Spending time with nature offers us all precious breathing space away from the stresses and strains of modern life, it enables us to experience joy and wonder, to slow down and to appreciate the wildlife that lives side by side with us.” During the current pandemic, the natural environment has never been so important for mental health and well-being.

With this in mind, and for the last four years during the period April to September, I have packed away my wide-angle lenses. I have reverted to my macro lens travelling the North Wales landscape capturing these tiny encapsulations of pure beauty. To photograph butterflies you need to understand their individual life cycles, their personal habitats, and how they fly and when. The complexities multiply when you also add the larval feed and nectaring plants. I consider that to successfully photograph butterflies, you must try to understand the science.

Small copper, Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Small pearl bordered fritillary, Image: Richard Glynn Jones

Since I commenced seriously to photograph butterflies, I have realised that butterflies do not come to you. They are not like the bird population with farming practices and climate ensuring that locating many species is a challenge. Careful research and planning are necessary involving peak flight periods, weather conditions and travel arrangements.

Certain butterflies suffer due to predation by parasitic hymenoptera. It is understood that the painted lady migrates annually from Morocco to reduce such depredations. Populations of holly blue fluctuate in cycles on account of wasp numbers. The silver-studded blue enjoys a symbiotic relationship with ants with the hatched caterpillars spending pre-pupation in the nest of the ants.

The study and photographing of butterflies, has taken me to diverse habitats and landscapes in North Wales. My photographic strength lie elsewhere. The challenges presented by butterflies exposes weaknesses in my photographic knowledge. This insecurity is a creative force which returns annually as I seek the best possible image of each butterfly. I have realised that this is a lifelong project. Records of butterfly numbers and locations, supported by images, are vital.

Marsh helleborine, Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Marsh helleborine, Image: Richard Glynn Jones
Large skipper, Image: Richard Glynne Jones
Large skipper, Image: Richard Glynne Jones

North Wales is blessed with many diverse natural habitats. Ynys Mon or Anglesey is particularly important for its dune systems and fens. Newborough represents one of the finest dune systems in the UK. The dunes, though partly afforested with conifers, are internationally recognised as a part of a Special Area of Conservation or SAC. The area has a rich butterfly population, and it is possible to see large numbers of various species during respective flight periods. The butterflies that you can expect to see are as follows - with those in bold on the wing found in the Dunescape habitat:

  • Ringlet
  • Small Skipper
  • Common Blue
  • Holly Blue
  • Dingy Skipper
  • Small Heath
  • Gatekeeper
  • Painted Lady
  • Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary
  • Dark Green Fritillary
  • Meadow Brown
  • Large Skipper
  • Small Skipper
  • Small Copper
  • Orange Tip
  • Speckled Wood

Whilst we all recognise the intrinsic and incredible beauty of butterflies, we also all need to understand the current threat to their existence. Their annual life cycle, involving continual rebirth has important spiritual connotations, and without our butterflies their would be a significant void in the landscape and environment of North Wales.


Written by Richard Glynne Jones ARPS