The knowledge of ecological requirements of declining butterflies of European woodlands remains limited, which hinders conservation management of their localities. This also applies for continentally threatened scarce fritillary Euphydryas maturna. On the basis of the largest data set on its habitat use ever collected in Central Europe, we analyse habitat requirements of its populations in Austria (A), the Czech Republic (Cz) and Germany (D). All studied populations inhabit open-canopy sites within woodlands, but larval survival decreases under full sun and preferred sites are relatively humid and sheltered. Nests of pre-hibernation larvae occur at terminal branches of Fraxinus excelsior, 1.5–3 m above the ground. Pre-hibernation mortality reaches 70% (Cz, D). Another limiting factor is quality of woodland vegetation: post-hibernation larvae consume a wide range of herbs and shrubs, and adult distribution is linked to nectar availability. The butterfly thus depends on highly heterogeneous early successional stages of deciduous woods, historically maintained by coppicing (Cz, D) and forest pasture (A). Restoration of these traditional methods offers the only chance for survival of E. maturna in Central Europe, and the butterfly may become a flagship for other threatened organisms of open-canopy woodlands.