Sunday, 19 October 2014

THE BIG SLEEP – bedtime for tortoises

It’s that time of year when certain creatures are getting ready for bed. This week tortoises around the UK will be stretching and yawning, finding somewhere warm to curl up and settling down to sleep for the winter.  Coincidentally the launch of a new teenage Mutant Ninja turtle’s movie   reminds me why my youngest son insisted we shelled out hundreds of pounds on a pair of tortoise in the first place!  And over at The Lake District Wildlife Park Margaret, the park's female tortoise, has laid 15 eggs, four of which have now hatched

What is our fascination with pets that are only awake for half of the year?

Long –term partners Shelly and Scotty are poking their heads out of their house, sniffing the October air and deciding that it really is a little too chilly for their usual stroll round the grounds.  The couple have had a good summer sun-bathing, enjoying meals on the lawn and rock climbing. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and it is looking more and more like bed-time for this pair of Mediterranean Tortoises who are preparing for hibernation 2014.
I have owned Shelley and Scotty for 13 years. They joined the family as tiny 3 month olds, no bigger than a 50 pence piece each, and they spent their first few months with us in a heated tank. Nowadays they have the run of the walled garden, their own rockery, a small wooden house and as much dandelion as they can eat. At least for six months a year. What are the advantages of owning these part-time pets?
·         Tortoises can only be bought from registered breeders, so they are not a cheap purchase. However, once you have adopted them, they are incredibly low maintenance – requiring the mimunun of attention and happy to eat garden weeds. They can also live up to 150 years so you certainly get your moneys’ worth!

·         As a travel writer I never waste a chance to spot the tortoises foreign cousins.   In Mauritius and on Prison Island in Zanzibar I have seen some giant tortoises which truly do resemble Super-Sized Scotty and Shelley. On the sleepy Caribbean island of Barbuda red-footed tortoises roam freely down the road only pausing to nibble on  a tasty leaf or plant
·         Finding the tortoises after their many hiding games is a family past time. They have buried themselves for days on end, emerging covered in soil, or have sheltered in the shed or even got into the house and hidden under the cooker, only to appear quite non-plussed and deposited back outside
·         Identifying new foods for them is a botanical lesson, we know they like dandelion but milk thistle and other common garden plants are also enjoyed. They love cucumber in the hot weather (they rarely drink water) and even the occasional strawberry
·         Establishing their gender is an entertainment in itself. We were told Scotty was male an Shelly was female, although it is difficult to tell especially with young tortoise, One  annual check with the tortoise vet revealed that Shelly has a very large tail for a female, implying that this tortoise may be more of a Percy Shelly than a Shelly Winters.  The discovery doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship
·         We look forward to greeting them next March. Christmas and New Year celebrations may pass them by, but they will have a great spring and summer in 2015

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