An elusive butterfly which disappeared from Norfolk half a century ago, has officially returned, wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation (BC) can reveal.

The Purple Emperor, which has declined by 31% across the UK in the last 10 years, was last recorded in Norfolk in 1961 and declared extinct there in the early 1970’s, but experts from BC’s Norfolk Branch have revealed the butterfly is back and could be breeding in the area.

The last known breeding colony of the butterfly was at Foxley Woods near Bawdeswell, but in recent years the Emperor has been recorded consistently in places near the county’s north coast, like Sheringham Park, Beeston Common and Holt Country Park.

Nature enthusiasts across the county are being asked to look out for the butterfly throughout July and to report any sightings to Butterfly Conservation.

Volunteer for BC’s Norfolk Branch, Kiri Stuart-Clarke, said:

“The return of the Purple Emperor to Norfolk takes the total number of butterfly species found in the county to 37. We are keen to chart the Emperor’s progress, so we’d love for people to help us look for them this summer.

“The Emperor likes areas of woodland where mature oak and sallow grow together and the best time to see them is in the morning, when they come down from the canopy to take minerals and salts from things like animal droppings and mud.

“As well as in north Norfolk, it might be possible to spot the butterfly anywhere along our southern border with Suffolk, where it is already resident, so please let us know if you see any.”

The Purple Emperor is one of the UK's largest butterflies - second only to the Swallowtail - and has a wing-span of up to 8.4cm.

Purple Emperor - Bob Eade

The butterfly appears to have black wings intersected with white bands, however in the sunlight, the wings of the male butterfly display a brilliant purple sheen.

The Purple Emperor closely resembles the White Admiral - but is distinguishable by an orange-ringed eyespot located under the forewing. 

The butterfly emerges in late June to early July and is mostly found in woodland in central southern England. In Norfolk, the Purple Emperor can be seen flying a little later than its southern counterparts.

The Purple Emperor caterpillar feeds on types of sallow, which were traditionally viewed by foresters as a weed and rooted out.

Kiri added:

“Loss of habitat was the main reason for the Purple Emperor’s disappearance in Norfolk, but thanks to the support of landowners and changes to way we manage our woodlands, we’re once again creating the type of habitat that this butterfly needs to survive.

“With your help, we can continue to chart the Purple Emperor’s progress in Norfolk and I’m confident that this time, the butterfly is here to stay.”

Purple Emperor - Iain H Leach
Purple Emperor