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The Lepidoptera (Latin for 'scaled wings') is the insect order that contains the butterflies and moths. Naturalists have traditionally divided the Lepidoptera into butterflies, macro-moths and micro-moths, but these are largely artificial divisions. There is no scientific difference between a butterfly and a moth, despite some claims to the contrary, although they do form a defined group within the Lepidoptera.


The moths of Shetland are relatively well-known. In the 19th century, it was discovered that Shetland had many unusual forms of moths. In the days of collectors, these were saleable, and so entomologists were sent to the islands to acquire specimens. Since the 1990s, traps have been run regularly in the islands, and many more species have been added to the Shetland List, many of them migrants.


A list of Shetland Lepidoptera in pdf form is available here.   

The butterflies of Shetland are listed below. There are only three species which are commonly recorded, although numbers can vary considerably between years (Large White, Red Admiral and Painted Lady). Two other species are recorded fairly regularly but are never common (Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock). Any other species is a rarity.


For more on butterflies in Shetland and details of how to submit records to Shetland Biological Records Centre see the Shetland Community Wildlife Pages.

Common butterflies

Large White Pieris brassicae

This is the only species that is resident in Shetland, although it has spells of periodic abundance which may indicate that the population is only temporarily resident, and is topped up by immigration. Residence has been proven by the location of overwintering pupa which have hatched successfully the following spring. The species is said to have first arrived in Shetland with NAAFI cabbages in WWII, although there are some earlier records. The caterpillars (larvae) feed on a wide range of plants in the brassica family, so it sometimes a pest in Shetland kaleyards, but the larvae are also particularly fond of the garden plant Sweet Rocket Hesperis matronalis. Adults may be seen any time during the summer from late April (earliest date 22nd April 2009) to October, exceptionally in November (latest date 11th November 2003). Most sightings are from May to August. The species is widespread in Britain and is a regular immigrant from the Continent. 

Large White Mike Pennington
Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

Recorded annually, sometimes in large numbers. Occasionally seen as early as mid-April but, exceptionally, there was one at Cunningsburgh on 8th April 2018. Most records are from late May to August. Autumn records are more erratic but there can be small influxes as well as the emergence of locally-bred adults. There are records right through October, although the latest is from 2nd November 2015 in Lerwick. Breeds in Shetland fairly regularly; the foodplant is Nettle Urtica dioica. Overwinters as a hibernating adult and almost certainly cannot survive in Shetland although it is capable of overwintering in southern Britain. Spring records in northern Europe nearly all originate from a post-winter emergence in southern Europe and north Africa.

Red Admirals adult Mike Pennington       Caterpillar John Bateson
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui

Recorded just about annually. Scarce in some years but there are periodic influxes when it may be commoner than Red Admiral e.g. 1962, 1980 (including 300 on Fair Isle on 1st August), 1996 (when they were overshadowed by Silver Ys Autographa gamma), 2009 and 2019. The earliest sighting of an adult was on Fetlar on 30th April 1998 and most records are from late May to August, with a few autumn records into October, the latest on Fair Isle on 25th October 2016. Breeding records are relatively few but tend to follow most large spring influxes; the foodplants are usually thistles Cirsium or Carduus. This species cannot overwinter in northern Europe but it is a famous migrant which has recently ben shown to engage in regular trans-Saharan migrations.

Painted Ladies Donald Robertson/ Kev Bryant 
Uncommon butterfies

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

A scarce immigrant that is now more or less annual, although it has become more frequent since the 1990s. Exceptionally, there were 35 on Fair Isle on 1st August 1980 but, otherwise, seeing more than one in a day is very unusual. Recently there was a peak total of 20 in 2014, none further north than Lerwick; indeed there have only been five records ever on Unst. Seen between 27th April (in 2011) and 28th October (in 2018), most frequently in August, but there are few records indoors from November to early April suggesting they may attempt to overwinter. Only two breeding records, both on Fair Isle on Common Nettle Urtica dioica in 1996 and 2009. A widespread breeder throughout Britain including Orkney.

Small Tortoiseshell Rebecca Nason
Peacock Aglais io

Recorded less than annually, but increasing in frequency. The first record was of one on Fetlar in about 1961, with another on Unst in August 1969, followed by at least eight in 1975. Since the 1990s there have been records in most years, including 28 in 2004 and about 70 in 2014. Normally seen singly, occasionally two together, but there were up to 5 on Noss in August 2014. Sightings are from 5th April (in 2012) to 16th October (in 2014), with a definite peak in August. A few others from November to March, most indoors, indicate attempted overwintering. There are no breeding records. The increase in sightings in Shetland has been associated with a spread northwards in Britain, although it is still scarce north of central Scotland.

Peacock Rebecca Nason
Rare butterflies

Common Blue Polyommatus icarus

Apparently a former resident but now extinct. Although not recorded by an entomologist until 1968 there are a number of reports of small blue butterflies, mainly in Dunrossness, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s that would suggest that the species was once resident. The main foodplant is Bird's-foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus. There have only been two reliable recent records, on Fair Isle on 11th June 1990 (with a blue sp. in August of the same year), and in Dunrossness on 7th July 1991. It is a common species throughout Britain and breeds as close as Orkney.

Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa 

Ten dated records: 

    1896    Foula, 31st August

    1901    Burrafirth, 15th August

    1976    Gardie, Bressay, 18th July

    1982    Lerwick, 4th August

                 Fetlar, no date

    1995    Foula, 11th August

                 Maryfield, Bressay, 11th September

    1996    Exnaboe,16th August

    1999    Scousburgh, 12th July

    2002    Hermaness, 14th August

    2018    Cullivoe, Yell, 2nd August

Others are alluded to in the literature but without any details. The species is a scarce migrant from the Continent, occasionally seen in numbers in southern Britain.

Clouded Yellow Colias croceus

Six records:

    1980    Fair Isle, late July and early August 1980

    1992    Fair Isle, 25th May

                 Fair Isle, 16th August

    1998    Mail, Bressay, 23rd June

    2007    Jarlshof, Sumburgh, 4th June

    2018    Sumburgh Head, 4th September

An erratic migrant in Britain, occasionally abundant in the south, but always scarce in Scotland.

Small White Pieris rapae

There have several reports of apparent immigrants, including seven acceptable records from Fair Isle, but very few, if any, have been supported by specimens or photographs. There are three adventive records (records which involve the intervention of man) - a brief residency for several years on Foula in the 1990s after cocoons were imported on a vehicle, one found and photographed indoors at South Nesting on 17th November 2000 and several adults and caterpillars on a batch of cabbages brought from Yorkshire at Baltasound on 25th August 2007. Widespread resident and immigrant in Britain but scarce in northern Scotland and absent from Orkney,

small  white  Baltasound  26.08.07 (2).j
Small White at Baltasound 2007 Wendy Dickson
Green-veined White Pieris napi

Another found indoors at Scatness on 4th January 2010, possibly imported with a Christmas tree. Another was seen at Gardie, Bressay, on 8th July 1994, but with no documentary evidence (two similar records on Fair Isle in 2013 are regarded as unconfirmed). The species is widespread in Britain as far north as Orkney.

Green-veined White at Scatness, 2010 Steve Minton
Monarch Danaus plexippus

Two records, singles at Bixter on 14th September 1941 and Hoswick on 23rd September 2019. Another probable was seen very briefly on Fair Isle on 1st September 2002. Breeds in North America but it is a famously strong migrant and regularly occurs in Europe and it has recently colonised the Atlantic island southern Iberia.

Swallowtail Papilio machaon

Two records, singles found dead next to the road at Voe on 2nd August 1994 and on Fair Isle on 9th September 1995. Very rare in Britain and restricted to East Anglia, but migrants from the Continent do occur.  

Meadow Brown  Maniola jurtina

Two records from Fair Isle, on 10th and 20th June 1980 and 27th July 1990. Although there is no documentary evidence for either record they were included in the recent list of Fair Isle Lepidoptera and it breeds as close as Orkney.

Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus

One record on Fair Isle on 13th June 1980. Although there is no documentary evidence for his record it was included in the recent list of Fair Isle Lepidoptera and it breeds as far north as northern Scotland.

Scarce Tortoiseshell Nymphalis xanthomelas

An adventive that was found amongst imported timber in Lerwick in August 2013. The species breeds in eastern Europe but has occurred as a very rare vagrant in Britain.

Written by Mike Pennington Updated 7th July 2020

with contributions from Rebecca Nason and Paul Harvey and incorporating information from Shetland Biological Records Centre

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