Since laws regulating the import of tortoises into the UK were introduced in 1984, the trade in wild-caught animals has declined rapidly meaning they are no longer seen in pet stores. But where do you go if you decide you want to give a tortoise a home?
Unfortunately, the expansion of the EU has meant a recent influx in wild-caught tortoises as dealers capitalise on loopholes in EU law, so we are beginning to see wild-caught animals make an appearance in stores once more. To avoid paying a small fortune for a diseased tortoise whose capture has dented a wild population, it's advisable to avoid pet stores and dealers altogether and find a reputable UK breeder.
Buying from a breeder means you get a healthy, captive-bred tortoise and all of the advice and support you'll need as you embark on your new-found career as a tortoise owner.
The best place to start your search is online. Websites such as our own Pets4Homes website, the Tortoise Protection Group (TPG) offer lists of breeders, their location and which breeds they specialise in. The TPG also offer tortoises for rehoming, which can be a good option for those who find the thought of raising a hatchling daunting!
To ensure your tortoise lives a long and healthy life it's essential that his basic needs are met. Most species are relatively easy to care for. The more exotic species should only be kept by an experienced reptile enthusiast; however Mediterranean species such as the Herman's Tortoise and the Spur-Thighed Tortoise can be cared for easily, providing the keeper is committed to meeting a few simple requirements. The keeper must also remember that tortoises can live a long time. A very long time. Sometimes in excess of 100 years!
All tortoises need access to natural light, so a secure garden enclosure is ideal. The inclement UK weather is not always tortoise-friendly so if he is able to get out of the worst of the weather into a greenhouse or poly-tunnel he will be very happy! Remember to make sure he has access to shade, as tortoises can quickly get too hot.
A simple enclosure can be constructed by creating a rectangle of low planks placed on edge. This should be as large as you can make it, and placed on grass or within a greenhouse. A box should be provided for shade and protection during the night.
Your tort's outdoor enclosure can be planted with nutritious grasses and vegetation for him to nibble, and placing some rocks in there will help your pal catch some rays in a variety of interesting angles. Sunbathing is the tortoise's number one pastime!
The indoor tortoise should NEVER be housed in a vivarium. These are hot, uncomfortable and usually too small. The best place to keep your tortoise if he's going to live inside is a 'tortoise table'. Again, these can be purchased online or your breeder will be able to advise. However, even the indoor tort should have access to the outdoors every now and then.
Although you may not see your tortoise drink very much, it's essential he has access to a supply of clean, fresh water at all times. It's also worth monitoring your pets during the warmest parts of the day as this is when they are likely to be most active and feeding. By watching closely you will be able to determine their feeding habits. Any that are not feeding well can be carefully hand fed if required, although be aware that tortoises can become lazy and may get into the habit of being hand fed.
A wide range of wild plants such as dandelions, chicory, sow thistle, white clover, heartsease and wild radish flowers, provide the best and most natural tortoise diet. Mallow, mulberry and hibiscus flowers, and various other shrub leaves and flowers, add variety to the diet. Ready mixed seeds can be purchased online and when sown, will provide a cost-effective, readily available food supply. While the intelligent tort will usually reject harmful plants and titbits, care should be taken to remove any weeds and poisonous plants from in and around his enclosure.
Natural browsing of 'safe' plants should meet all of the tortoise's nutritional needs, however offering extra treats such as lettuce, cucumber or tomato, particularly at the beginning or end of the season when natural vegetation is scarce, will also keep your pet healthy and happy. Do be aware however, that salad vegetables are high in water and low in nutrients, so they should only ever form a small part of the tortoise diet.
Foods high in sugar such as very ripe fruits, cabbage and spinach should be avoided, as should foods high in protein like cat or dog food, peas and other legumes. These can cause deformities in the developing shell, as well as kidney failure or bladder stones.
Tortoises are browsing animals, designed to feed on sparse vegetation. In the wild they can live in very harsh environments where they may experience lengthy periods without food. They have evolved to cope with this irregular availability of food and therefore do not need to eat every day to stay healthy.
As long as your tortoise is a good weight, there is no need to worry if he does not eat every day. On dull, wet or cold days your tortoise may not become active enough to digest food properly, and on those days he will not eat.
Tortoises benefit from a regular worming and parasite control programme and this should be started as soon as you bring your new friend home. Your vet will be able to advise on an appropriate worming treatment and it's important that the programme is adhered to carefully. Not only are worms bad for your tortoise's health, they can also be passed onto humans...
Vitamin and mineral supplements should also be given with care and only on the advice of a vet.
As summer draws to a close and temperatures begin to drop, your tortoise will gradually become more lethargic and eat less.
This is a natural slowing down which prepares them for the winter months when the tortoise's body will shut down almost completely. His metabolism slows to the point where his heart is hardly beating and all of his bodily functions work at a level that just keeps him alive.
Preparing for hibernation is always tricky and so particular care is required at the beginning and end of the season. It is worth speaking to your vet or breeder before you prepare for your first hibernation. Similarly, as you start to think about bringing your tort out of hibernation for the first time it's worth seeking the advice of an expert.
Some websites to visit include:www.tortoise-protection-group.org.ukwww.tortoisetrust.org