Book Review: Butterflies and their Plants

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta on Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum
© Karen Andrews

A 2017 holiday in the unspoilt area of Epirus, Greece first made me realise how many insects, and especially butterflies, we have lost in Britain since my childhood. This year, I re-encountered that sense of amazement as I walked on high ground in local nature reserves. Unseen butterflies seemed to take flight at my every step. I noticed how often it is the plants with a bad reputation that support the largest populations of butterflies, bees and other insects. Reading Peter Eeles’s new book on Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies has been a fascinating follow-up to my summer observations.

Brambles are important to butterflies throughout their life cycles
© Karen Andrews

Book Review

I took advantage of the special offer to order Peter Eeles’s book in advance of publication. This is necessarily the review of a botanist. I am sure that there are many better qualified lepidopterists to content on the butterfly content. Initially, I just flicked through the book and admired the beautiful photography. Next, I admired the extensive list of plant names quoted as nectar sources and larval foodplants.

Bird’s-foot Trefoil is a popular plant species with butterflies in local limestone grassland
© Karen Andrews


I originally thought that I had bought a new type of identification guide that I would dip into from time to time. The book is so much more. I first realised this when I found myself reading my fiftieth consecutive page. I unexpectedly read the whole book of 394 pages from cover to cover over several days. Each section brims with fascinating information and discovery tips.

Labour of Love

Each of the 59 butterfly species considered resident or regular migrants have dedicated pages that are highly readable and individual. This book is well-structured, but it is not formulaic in approach. It is a labour of love.

The migrant Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, on Verbena bonariensis in an urban setting in Bristol
© Karen Andrews

Dedicated Pilgrim

Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies is based on a lifetime’s passionate and painstaking observation. For example, the author undertook a 3-year pilgrimage to several locations in north-west Scotland to record all the lifecycle stages of the poorly-recorded Chequered Skipper, Carterocephalus palaemon. I am sure botanists can appreciate the level of dedication involved in capturing the tiniest stages and characteristics.

A Lifelong Passion

The author speaks of his lifelong passion that started after watching a home-reared moth emerge from its chrysalis as a 7-year-old boy. He dedicates the book to his grandsons. There is humour. A joke, fiftieth birthday present of a walking stick from his son, turned out to be really useful in the field. Peter Eeles conveys the frustrations of photographing some flighty species. I liked that his photos reflect the half-hidden characteristics that made my own butterfly identifications difficult this summer.

Interdisciplinary Appeal

This is not a work of stuffy intellectualism that leaves the uninitiated yawning before reaching page 10. This is a colourful guide that offers value for money and interdisciplinary appeal. I believe that it will stand the test of time as the new Frohawk.

Knock-on Effects

There is much valuable information about declines in distribution and abundances. Some figures are alarming. The threatened Pearl-border Fritillary, Boloria euphrosynea, has suffered a 95% decline in distribution and 71% decline in abundance since 1976. As a botanist, I moaned about the reductions in violets this year. Now, I realise the consequences of such a decline on certain butterfly species. We need more of these connections to be made species by species.

Climate Change Complications

The complicated nature of climate change is revealed. For example, you might assume that earlier high temperatures would encourage more butterflies. Instead, higher temperatures can encourage earlier growth of grasses. Lower ground temperatures result and can have a negative effect on butterflies.

Early grass growth caused by climate change can be detrimental to butterflies at ground level
© Karen Andrews

Potential for Nature Recovery?

The author notes how butterflies have been adversely affected by reductions in coppicing, grazing and traditional forms of bracken management. Conifer plantations, the loss of rabbits due to myxomatosis and nitrogen deposition have also had adverse effects. This is not just a book for butterfly nerds. It has great potential to help conservationists understand and manage habitats for individual species. It highlights balanced and connected information for nature recovery.

Of its time, and timely

Peter Eeles sets a new standard for accessible nature guides. I would like to see botanical and other natural history authors follow his lead. This is a book of its time, urgently needed by its time.

Meadow Brown, Maniola justina, feeding on much-maligned Ragwort
© Karen Andrews

Book Details:

Eeles, Peter (2019): Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, Pisces Publications, Newbury, Berkshire, UK. ISBN 978-1-874357-88-9

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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