Heath fritillary (Mellicta athalia)

GenusMellicta (1)
SizeWingspan: 3.4 - 4.6 cm (2)

Fully protected in Great Britain under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3).

One of our rarest butterflies, the heath fritillary is a light orange-brown in colour with dark brown markings; the underside is pale yellow with dark orange markings and a number of white spots (1). The caterpillar grows up to 2.4 centimetres in length, and has a black body with whitish spots, orange spines and a black head with white marks (2).

Widespread throughout much of Europe, reaching into Asia, this species was once found in many areas of southern England, but it suffered a serious and rapid decline in the twentieth century. In 1980 the heath fritillary was very endangered and just 31 colonies were found in Kent and areas of south-west England. After 1981, new colonies were found in Exmoor, but recent research has shown that the number of colonies on Exmoor declined by 50 percent in the last ten years (4).

Found in well-drained, warm, sunny and sheltered habitats. Three main habitats are utilized and the species has different requirements in each. In coppiced woodlands or woodlands that have been recently felled, the species breeds on common cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense). On unimproved grassland it feeds on ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). When the heath fritillary occurs on sheltered heathland, the main host plant is common cow-wheat, but sometimes foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is utilized. In all habitats, the foodplant must grow in abundance in otherwise sparse vegetation (5).

The adult flight period generally occurs between late May and early July; the heath fritillary can be seen flying close to the ground and taking nectar from bramble flowers, buttercup and ox-eye daisy (5). The species is single-brooded, eggs are laid in large clumps near the ground on the underside of a leaf on a plant next to the foodplant. Larvae hibernate in a tube made from a dead leaf, which is rolled and sealed with silk. They emerge the following spring to complete their development and pupate in leaf litter (1).

The heath fritillary has suffered as a result of the decline in coppice management as well as the widespread coniferisation of deciduous woodland. On moorland, a lack of regular burning and suitable grazing regimes has contributed to the decline (5). Further problems arise as populations become increasingly fragmented and isolated (5).

It is likely that the heath fritillary would have become extinct in England if it were not for the huge conservation effort that has been undertaken to save it (6). The ideal management techniques for this species are well understood; woodlands should be coppiced on a rotational basis (5), and clearings should be linked with rides (6). A number of nature reserves in Kent have been managed in this way, which has stimulated large increases in the numbers of this species. The National Trust has also managed heathland habitat in Exmoor in ways that suit the heath fritillary, with sheep and cattle grazing, and a programme of rotational burning of the heath to maintain a short sward. The heath fritillary is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (3).

For more information on the heath fritillary see:

Information authenticated by Butterfly Conservation:

  1. Still, J. (1996) Collins Wild Guide: Butterflies and moths of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  2. Carter, D.J. and Hargreaves, B. (1986) A Field Guide to Caterpillars of Butterflies and Moths in Britain and Europe. Collins, London.
  3. UK Biodiversity Species Action Plan (March, 2002)
  4. Stewart, K.S., Bourn, N., Warren, M. and Brereton, T. (2001) The Heath Fritillary (Mellicta athalia) on Exmoor: Changing Status 1980-2000 and Conservation Recommendations. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham.
  5. Barnett L.K. and Warren, M.S. (1995) Species Action Plan: Heath fritillary, Mellicta athalia. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham. Available at:
  6. Asher, J., Warren, M., Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G. and Jeffcoate, S. (2001) The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford.