Changes in the abundance and distribution of individual species have been widely documented in Britain and other countries in recent decades, but little has been done to determine changes in community composition over broad geographic areas. Here, we studied species turnover in 51 butterfly assemblages in Britain since 1976, examining extinction and colonisation events together with variation in the abundances of the species. We showed that the species turnover that occurred over 20 years in Britain was associated with colonisation and extinction events and also with variability in the abundance of the species. These changes in community composition differed according to the habitat requirements of the species and their previous distributions, being more evident for habitat specialists and for southerly distributed species. Colonising species often became abundant components of the communities they joined, although this was more evident for generalist than for specialist species. The abundance of species following their arrival, increased with time since colonisation. Species turnover associated with southerly species expanding northwards is consistent with being a response to climate change. The results suggest that climate- and habitat-driven changes in the identity and abundance of species within communities are widespread, and probably ubiquitous. Similar changes are likely to be occurring in other groups of organisms that are similarly undertaking major range shifts associated with climate change.