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Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)


The Red Admiral is a handsome red and black migratory butterfly (wingspan 64-78 mm). It is one of the most striking and easily recognised common butterflies, with large velvety-black upperwings with red and white stripes and beautifully camouflaged underwings. Both sexes are similar in appearance, although males are often slightly smaller. The number of Red Admirals seen each year depends on the number of adults successfully migrating from Africa and Southern Europe, which can vary dramatically.

Credit: Jim Black
Credit: Jim Black
Credit: Scott Shanks

Life Cycle

Adults arriving in Scotland tend to have already mated. Females spend much of their time searching for patches of common nettle (Urtica diocia) in full sunshine on which they lay their green beach ball-shaped eggs. The eggs are laid singly on the upper surface of the leaves. Females often choose small nettle plants unlike female small tortoiseshells and peacocks which prefer larger clumps of nettles. After hatching the mottled spiny caterpillar makes a tent of nettle leaves and silk in which to feed, and goes through 5 instars before pupating. The green-brown pupa is speckled with gold and may be formed either within the nettle leaf tent or hidden in dense vegetation away from the food plant. After emerging, males may set up temporary territories and search for mates to produce another generation, but the migratory drive is very strong and most will disperse.

Flight Times

The Red Admiral may potentially be seen in south west Scotland during any month of the year, but sightings tend to be from April through to early November. Numbers increase during the summer as further migrants arrive with a peak in September and early October.

Habitat & Distribution in SW Scotland

Distribution map 2010

The Red Admiral is a powerful flyer with a widespread distribution in south west Scotland, being found from the coast to mountain tops and in urban areas too. It is most commonly seen in parks and gardens at the end of the summer when adults congregate to feed at nectar-rich flowers such as buddleia and Michaelmas daisies or fallen fruit. Each spring and summer adults migrate northwards in waves from their key breeding grounds in Africa and Southern Europe. Broods produced in Europe join the migration and bolster numbers in the UK in late summer.

There are also many records of a reverse migration near the end of the summer, with large numbers congregating on the South Coast of England waiting for calm weather before crossing the English Channel and moving southwards through Europe once more.

The Red Admiral regularly migrates north to all parts of Scotland and has even been found on St Kilda and Fair Isle. Although it cannot normally survive winters in the UK there have been reports of individuals successfully overwintering during mild winters with some examples from the Highland branch area in recent years. The abundance of the species in Scotland each year depends on conditions outside the UK and it is not currently a species of conservation concern.


  • Barbour, D., Moran, S, Mainwood, T & Slater, B 2008. Atlas ofr Butterflies in Highland & Moray. Big Sky.
  • 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.
  • Fox, R., Asher, J., Brereton, T., Roy, D., Warren, M. 2006. The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Pisces Publications.
  • Thomson, G. 1982. The Butterflies of Scotland. Croom Helm London.
  • Tomlinson, D. & Still, R. 2002. Britainís Butterflies. WILDGuides.
  • Written by Scott Shanks

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