HNV Farming & Species

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)

Marsh Fritillary
Common name: Marsh fritillary (ENG), Goldener / Abbiss- / Skabiosen-Scheckenfalter (DE), doncella de ondas (ESP), Damier de la succise / des marais (F)
Scientific name: Euphydryas aurinia, Eurodryas aurinia
Conservation status: Annex II, Habitat directive
Red data book (IUCN): LC (least concern)
Population trend: DECREASING; extinct in the Netherlands, strong decline (>30%) in Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Ireland, Slovakia and Ukraine (IUCN 2011)


Marsh Fritillary

The Marsh fritillary occurs in large parts of Europe, mainly in the West and Southwest (France, Spain, Ireland, Alps).

The vertical distribution extends from sea-level to >2.000 m. It is a variable species with many subspecies (e.g. E.a. beckeri, E.a. debilis, E.a. provincialis).

Habitat requirements

Euphydryas aurinia inhabits very different habitat types: the spectrum reaches from the edges of raised bogs to semi-natural dry, calcareous grasslands. Important structural aspects include an uneven patchwork of short and long vegetation.

The following pictures aim at illustrating the differences as well as the common points concerning habitat, vegetation structure, land-use etc.

Foto Habitat type Text
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Damp grassland with Succisa pratensis Typical habitat of Marsh fritillary in Ireland: damp grassland dominated by the larval host plant Succisa pratensis.
A heterogenic sward structure with plant height between 8 and 25 cm is preferred. This can be best achieved by low-intensity cattle grazing.
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Damp grassland with Succisa pratensis after slurry application The high sensitivity of MF to land-use changes can be seen on this picture from Ireland. Sward structure and species composition of this inhabited meadow/pasture has been altered by the application of slurry – visible by the darker green colour on the right hand side. The nutrient input will lead to a more dense plant growth and the loss of the larval host plant.
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Wet grasslands with Succisa pratensis in Scotland (Islay) Due to the long history of pastoral management on the island of Islay, suitable habitat for the butterfly occurs on a landscape scale. This has lead to the existence of a viable metapopulation.
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Dry calcareous grassland in Germany Apparently, calcareous grasslands mown on a larger scale lack the heterogenic sward structure important for the species. Furthermore, the larval nests are frequently damaged by mowing machinery. Therefore in these habitats the population size is usually low (Ulrich 2002).
Higher densities can be found in grasslands grazed or mown in a more stochastic manner and bordered by hedgerows. These constitute important shelters, since this ecotype seems to be susceptible to wind.
According to Ulrich (2002) optimum conditions prevail on early successional fallow stages of calcareous grasslands, with shrub encroachment beginning at the edges.
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Alpine grassland in Italy The alpine subspecies E. a. debilis prefers different Gentians as larval host plant (e.g. Gentiana lutea, G. punctata).
In contrast to low-lying grasslands, these habitats lack shrubs offering shelter in adverse weather conditions.
Habitat Euphydryas aurinia Olive and fig orchard This extensively managed olive and fig orchard in Spain (Sierra de Gredos) show many similarities with dry, calcareous grasslands from floristic and structural composition. Currently the grasslands are grazed with horses in early spring and summer (Jan – Jul). Afterwards the land is lightly harrowed with a small disk harrow in order to reduce fire risk.


Marsh fritillary has one generation per year. Depending on the habitat, the larval food plants varies considerably. On damp heathy grasslands, which form the typical habitat in Ireland and the UK, the larvae feed on Devil's bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). On dry, calcareous grasslands the most important host plant is Small scabious (Scabiosa colombaria), others include Field scabious (Knautia arvensis) or teasels (Dipsacus spp.). In alpine regions different Gentians are used (G. punctata, G. lutea) by the subspecies E. a. debilis.

Up to 350 eggs are laid in groups on the underside of leaves. After hatching in June-July, the young caterpillars live in communal webs spun on the foodplant. Autumn sees the construction of stronger and denser webs close to the ground, which are used for hibernation. In spring the caterpillars disperse and can be occasionally be seen basking in the sun.

Marsh fritillary tends to occur in the form of metapopulations. This is defined as a collection of distinct local populations which are linked occasionally by dispersing individuals. These local populations can go extinct but recolonisation processes are possible.

Devil's bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) Small scabious (Scabiosa colombaria) Gentiana lutea Marsh fritillary Marsh fritillary larvae

Importance of HNV Farmland

The severe decline of Marsh fritillary populations in large parts of Europe during the past decades coincides with drastic changes in agricultural practices and land-use in general. The ecotype restricted to wet and damp grasslands has only managed to survive in regions where suitable habitats occur on a landscape scale so that viable metapopulations could continue to exist. In the UK these areas are largely restricted to the west (e.g. Cornwall, Wales, western Scotland), in Germany to the Swabian-Bavarian Alpine Foothills. In Germany the more isolated and smaller populations in mid-mountain regions were either lost due to intensification of the mesotrophic grasslands (valleys) or due to abandonment / afforestation (mountain pastures).

Similar processes took place in the semi-natural dry grasslands. In most regions these habitat types are highly fragmented or isolated and the metapopulation structure cannot be maintained. Many important orchid sites have been lost due to shrub encroachment or were actively planted with coniferous trees.

The importance of maintaining HNV Farming systems for conservation of the species is therefore vital. Management prescriptions cannot imitate the land-use heterogeneity of these systems with different mowing dates, grazing densities etc. which results in a mosaic of sward structure and different successional stages of grasslands on which the Marsh fritillary depends.


IUCN (2011): Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011. Downloaded from on 22/06/2011.

Ulrich, R. (2002): Die FFH-Art Goldener Scheckenfalter Euphydryas aurinia (ROTTEMBURG, 1775) im Saarland: Aktuelle Verbreitung, Bedeutung für die deutsche Gesamtpopulation und Schutz. – Downloaded from on 22/06/2011.

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2024/04/19
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