Tortoise news

So, after a week or so of hard Googling and chatting to tortoise enthusiasts and pet shop owners, and reptile fanciers and spending a small fortune on setting things up for the arrival of what will be the most pampered tortoise on the planet, we finally went out the day before yesterday and purchased a tortoise.


We went to a local pet store (Pingle Pets), the owner of which I had spoken to early on in my quest. A lot of people on the internet tell you not to get tortoises from pet shops because pet shop owners are unscrupulous and mean to tortoises the world over. After having talked to this shop owner, and then talked to lots of other people, everything the shop owner told me was borne out by what other people had said, and he owns tortoises himself, so I felt we could probably trust him not to sell us a bum steer.

Please baby cheezus, please let this be true.

We went for a Hermann’s tortoise in the end. I was so concerned about a Horsfield’s tortoise dying of wet rot given the lousy weather, even though it means laying on extra heat for the Hermann’s. I know I will sleep easier worrying about my electricity bill rather than tortoise trench foot.

The tortoise chose Tilly rather than Tilly choosing the tortoise. We knew he/she was the one for her as soon as it crapped on her cardigan when she was holding it. Shit luck’s good luck as my granny always said. Let us hope this holds true for both tortoises and nearly fifteen year olds.

The tortoise is called Tiberius, not after the Roman emperor. No, after James T. Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise. My girl is a geek through and through, God love her.

We have no idea whether Tiberius is a boy or a girl yet, as apparently it has to do with their tail shape and he/she is too young for us to figure this bit out yet. But as we already have a girl cat called Derek, we have no problem with a tortoise of indeterminate sex being called Tiberius.

I thought that it would be easy to set up all the stuff when we got home. This turned out to be a total lie.

The main issue was getting the heating of the tortoise table right. Hermann’s tortoises need between 32 and 35 degrees C heat during daylight hours, and the heat lamp has to be about 12 inches from their heads so that you don’t melt them. Nobody likes a melted tortoise.

We spent a lot of time with Jason swearing into the depths of his tool kit, cannibalising the lamp and adjusting the height from tortoise, and me measuring temperatures and wringing my hands. Tilly spent a lot of time fielding the tortoise while we crouched over the pen thinking dark, tortoise related thoughts.

I had always understood that tortoises who were not operating at the correct temperatures were slow to the point of immobility. Despite the fact it took about three hours to get the habitat temperature right, Tiberius was undeterred and stalked his way across the bed, the floor, the desk and anywhere else he was put with grim and fairly speedy determination. Which was a surprise.

It says in the tortoise manuals that it is important to give your tortoise a bath every day. There is some disagreement over whether drinking water should be supplied in the habitat, as the bath should give them plenty to drink and wetting their greens can also give them more than enough water. We have given Tiberius the option, with a large, shallow bowl of water which he can climb in and out of at will, drinking or not as he sees fit.

He sees fit, and has spent much time climbing in and out of the water and generally splashing about as if he were a Californian teenager on a beach holiday.

Apart from bathing, his other delight seems to be in climbing. He will try to scale anything and everything. At the moment he cannot get out of his tortoise table, as the walls are too high and smooth, and he is too small, but as he grows I can see this becoming an issue and feel that we have a tortoise whose main hobbies will be scuba diving and re-enacting that bit where they scale the cliffs in The Guns of Navarone. He is promising to become the Bear Grylls of the tortoise world.

One thing he does not like is sand between his toes however, so we have provided him with a flat rock to climb out onto so he can dry off before plodging back to his favourite haunt, a hollowed out log, where he sits when our tender ministrations have become too much for him.

I have no idea if what we are doing is good, bad or indifferent to be honest. After forty eight hours he is still alive, the cat has not tried to frisby him into the garden, nor to shit in his tortoise table, so I am taking this as a good sign. Nobody has accidentally trodden on him, squashed him, or poked his eye out. Also all good things.

Tiberius has eaten, he has satisfactorily moved his bowels and piddled like a good un, and he has viciously attacked a cuttlefish we bought for him to blunt his beak on to the point where we may have to make him an artificial beak if he keeps this up. He has hoofed down some greens and a bit of cucumber, and basked under his light. I think this is the best we can hope for, given that he is unable to write us a list of complaints about what we may be doing wrong. It’s all trial and error from here on in.

For anyone else interested in buying/owning a tortoise – which given the response here and on Facebook, is quite a few of you – I will try to keep you up to date with our tortoise related news, should anything spectacular happen.

Here’s the basics from what we’ve picked up. Anyone already in possession of a tortoise, please feel free to shoot me down in flames, offer me better advice in the comments box:

I was advised by the magnificent, tortoise owning Belgian Waffle, to buy a two year old or older. Younger than that and they can succumb to more ‘stuff’ and ‘things’. Tiberius is two.

I was also advised by various parties to pick one of two breeds which do better in the UK climate, either a Horsfield’s or a Hermann’s tortoise. Horsfield’s cope better with the cold, but do not like the wet. They also do not need papers and micro chipping. Hermann’s need micro chipping and all proper import licences etc, but cope better with the damp.

Most pet shops, suppliers seem to stock them at about two years old. The average price I was quoted for a Hermann’s was £150, this is with all papers and micro chipped. A Horsfield’s is about £100.

You will need a tortoise table. In the shops these cost about £90-£100. They are deepish wooden tray with a sleeping area with a lid. Ours is about four foot by three foot and about a foot deep.

You need to fill the table with substrate. Tortoises can pick up respiratory diseases so it has to be right. We have chosen a speciality tortoise mix which is half sterilised soil and half sand. It needs to be cleared out about once a month. Two bags of substrate fill our table to an adequate depth for the tortoise to dig down if they want to. The substrate is about £7 per bag.

You need to provide a variety of different habitats within the table. We have the hollowed out log where he likes to hide and chill (we bought this from the pet shop, they had a whole variety to choose from. We are discovering that he loves to climb, so will be putting in some rocks for him to scramble over. As I said, he also likes to bathe and drink. We have a very shallow dish we bought from the pet shop which is large enough for him to move around in but not deep enough for him to drown or get stuck in. A tupperware container would work as well.

They need something to blunt their claws/beak on. Cuttlefish are good for this, and Tiberius is mad for his. It is in flinders already. They are about £3 for six from Pets at Home. Rocks in the environment can also help them with this.

Food is a small handful of green stuff daily. Not lettuce (unless Romaine), nor cabbage or spinach which do funny things to them. They like cucumber but it has little nutritional value. Weeds and plants from the garden, clover, dandelion leaves, parsley, etc all good. There’s a whole list on various tortoise fancying websites. The food needs to be changed daily and sprinkled with calcium powder. Ours was £6 for a tub. The tiniest of pinches means it will last a long time. There is another food supplement called Nutrobal which they have to have, again in a tiny pinch, on their food twice a week.

Bathing should be done every morning in a bowl of warm, shallow water for at least ten minutes. It encourages them to wee and pooh.

The heat lamp was a problem for us. I had, as you may know, bought a whole lot of stuff from a guy on EBay. He provided me with two separate lamps, a UVB light source and a heat lamp. We tried this, but could not get the temperature of the tortoise table high enough for Tiberius using this method. In the end we bought a lamp and bulb from the pet shop where we bought Tiberius. It was not cheap. The bulb was about £55 and the lamp £30. The bulb does last for a year under guarantee however, and you must have the right type of lamp for the bulb because the bulb gets so hot that if you put it in a regular lamp it will melt and cause a fire hazard, so it was money well spent. This bulb provides both UVB and heat simultaneously and has managed to heat up the tortoise table to the right temperature for us. We have taken the head of the lamp and attached it to an angle poise fitting which is clamped to the tortoise table. The angle poise bit means we can adjust the lamp if it gets too hot or too cold, and also make sure we are not burning Tiberius to a crisp.

In the stuff I bought from the chap on EBay is a digital thermometer/timer which has proved most useful. The thermometer is on a fine wire which you insert in the tank near the heat source. You can set it so it alerts you if it gets too hot or too cold. You can also set it to come on and off automatically. I have no idea how much these are from a pet shop, but it has proved invaluable to us so far. It will also be useful when we want to hibernate Tiberius.

My information tells me that until they are about five years old, most people keep their Hermann’s indoors year round, except when it is exceptionally fine weather. In preparation for going outside, should we ever get good weather again, I have cannibalised the children’s old hard shelled sand pit which has a lid, so that when we are not using it I can stop the cat from crapping in it. It is deep enough that Tiberius won’t be able to climb out, but big enough to provide him with an interesting habitat. I also got an outside hutch with a ramp from the EBay guy so this will sit in one end of the pit on a bed of substrate. To stop birds and other predators eating him while he is outside, I am going to get some raspberry cane netting from the garden centre to stretch across the top of the sandpit. Job’s a good un I think, certainly until he’s old enough for him to wander in the garden freely.

Vet wise, I was told that unless you think there is something wrong, you only need to visit your vet once a year for an annual worming.

That’s it so far.

It seems that the initial set up costs are pretty high. All together about £400 including the tortoise. On the other hand, after the initial set up they seem relatively inexpensive to look after and will outlive most of us, so you can look at the cost spread out over about 80 years and realise how cheap it actually is.

Or something.

7 responses to “Tortoise news

  1. My word. I feel positively neglectful after reading all that: marina has to make do with a do deal less attention – but, then, she is 10. She is currently in the greenhouse (I..umm… hope). The best advice I read was to think of them as reptilian goats grazing scrub – the less lush their food sources, the better!

  2. General consensus seems to be that once you’ve nursed them to about the age of five they are much more hardy and can be more neglected. I await the day!

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  4. Blimey, I had no idea that tortoises were so complicated. But then everything I knew about them came from watching the Blue Peter presenters putting Freda in a box every autumn.. Are you going to build That Rock Formation in his habitat?

    • It is proving to be a steep learning curve, as like you I totally got everything I ever knew about tortoises from Blue Peter. I might have to build him an entire city…

  5. I am American and have never known anyone who had a tortoise. Maybe turtles, in tanks. After some years of reading blogs I began to gather that many British people have tortoises but I had the impression they just sort of wandered around the garden and didn’t require care except for hibernation. So all this is interesting. You care for the tortoise and then it can be footloose and fancy free around five years old? Do they serve any kind of a function (eating weeds?) or are they just charming?

    I love the idea of one roaming around but likely our location is both too cold and too wet.

  6. L, I thought they did too. I expect they did before the internet. I blame Google for pampering tortoises unnecessarily.

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