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Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) - PRIORITY SPECIES


The Marsh Fritillary is the most brightly coloured of the fritillary species with a chequered pattern of yellow and orange patches arranged in bands on the upperwing while the underside is much paler with a pattern of orange and pale spots. However, there is considerable variation between individuals with some having much greater black markings. A distinctive feature of this butterfly is the orange colour of the legs, palps and underside of the antennae.

Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Neil Gregory

Life Cycle

Large batches of yellow-orange eggs are laid on Devilís Bit Scabious during June, sometimes in warmer sunnier situations such as slightly raised drier grassy knolls or at the bottom of slopes and sometimes in flat quite marshy areas in which their foodplant is dominant. The young caterpillars are gregarious and spin communal webs around the foodplant in which they feed and which protects them from predators and creates a warmer micro-climate. These webs are conspicuous during August and September but during early October, the caterpillars cease feeding and go into hibernation in their webs close to the ground.

During late March, the caterpillars which resemble Peacock caterpillars with a velvety black appearance with small white spots, resume feeding, initially in communal webs but during April, they disperse more widely and feed as solitary individuals. The caterpillars pupate in late April or early May in grassy vegetation forming a pale buff chrysalis.

Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman

Flight Times

The adults emerge in late May in warmer years with the peak time being June. Numbers vary greatly from year to year with large numbers present in peak years but the Marsh Fritillary can be scarce in some years. There is some evidence of a seven year cycle and this may be caused by parasitism by Cotesia Ichneumon wasps.

Habitat & Distribution in SW Scotland

Distribution map 2010

A marsh is generally defined as poorly drained flat land which sometimes floods, often at the edges of lakes. It is certainly the case that the Marsh Fritillary can be found in such marshy habitats, but it also occurs on a range of other grasslands too: damp grassland dominated by tussock-forming grasses; calcareous grassland in England; eskers in Ireland; heath & mire; and in unimproved pastures grazed by cattle and sheep.

In Scotland, Marsh Fritillary is found on several of the western isles: Islay, Lismore, Colonsay, Jura, & Mull. On the mainland, there are Marsh Fritillary colonies in the northern part of Kintyre, in Knapdale, and in much of western Argyll including Adfern, around Oban and Loch Creran and around Taynuilt. In 2008, new colonies have been found on Bute in the south of its known range and also near Mallaig north of its known range.

The Marsh Fritillary is generally associated with grazed pastures as grazing encourages a sward dominant in Devilís Bit Scabious. However some colonies arenít grazed by either cattle or sheep showing that Marsh Fritillary also occurs in more natural habitats with vegetation which is more mire and heath habitat than grassy pastures.

It is from these natural habitats that adult Marsh Fritillary may colonise the man-made grazed pasture habitats which this butterfly is associated with today. Surveys have shown that Marsh Fritillary habitat patches are quite small, often less than 0.2 ha as they relate to low lying flat areas between areas of higher ground. Although grazed pastures may provide larger areas of habitat, web surveys often indicate that suitable habitat is confined to parts of fields such as the margins of heath-mire habitat and pasture, or bottom of steep slopes, field margins and raised drier parts of fields.

Examples of 'natural' Marsh Fritillary Habitat

Marshy habitat at Taynuilt
Heath & Mire habitat near Oban
Flat damp grassland at Ardfern
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman

Examples of 'man-made pasture' Marsh Fritillary Habitat

Herb-rich Pasture Loch Creran -September
Herb-rich Pasture Loch Creran - April
Overgrazed Pasture - Appin
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman

While today, Marshy Fritillary is confined to mainland Argyll and the Argyll islands, it was found in some other parts of Scotland in the 19th Century: from Hawick in the Borders prior to 1825, in parts of Ayrshire and Clackmannanshire and in a few places further north such as near Perth, Forres and Aberdeenshire. But these were only local colonies and it seems that the current distribution was always the stronghold of the Marsh Fritillary with a few records extending north into Inverness-shire and south into Dunbartonshire as is the case today.


  • Futter, K., Sutcliffe, R., Welham, D., Welham, A., Rostron, A., MacKay, J., Gregory, N., McCleary, J., Tait, T., Black, J. & Kirkland, P. 2006. Butterflies of South West Scotland. Argyll Publishing. (see Atlas page)
  • Asher, J., Warren, M, Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G., Jeffcoate, S. 2001. The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain & Ireland. Oxford University Press.
  • Thomson, G. 1982. The Butterflies of Scotland. Croom Helm London.

Written by Andrew Masterman

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