Russians in the UK

 

I have only been keeping Russian tortoises for approximately 7 years but have found them to be one of the most fun and rewarding species to care for.  They are full of character, personality and mischief!

I have made some notes on how I care for mine which has worked well and resulted in happy, healthy, thriving tortoises.  I will cover indoor & outdoor accommodation, diet and basic health care, breeding and ideas that have worked for my Russians living in the South East of England.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indoor Accommodation

My smaller Russians (while indoors) were previously kept in an open topped wooden enclosure which allows for lots of light and air circulation, although now they have their own heated greenhouse with access to their outside enclosure.  The table top enclosure was in a heated greenhouse on waist high benching which allowed natural warmth from the sun even on overcast days in autumn and spring.  An enclosed vivarium type set-up is not a good choice for Horsfields (or most species of tortoise come to that) as it allows humidity build up and lack of thermoregulation opportunities.   I used a substrate of hemp (Auboise) which is a non-dusty product and allowed the tortoises to dig and burrow if they wished.  A substrate of soil/sand is also a good choice.  Russian tortoises dig and climb naturally in the wild and I believe this should be replicated in captivity to allow for more natural behaviour and in the case of digging, to help guard against possible problems of dehydration.   The enclosure had various textures in it by using pieces of slate for feeding on,  lots of hidey holes/caves, some large rocks and a container filled with soil for digging.   They have a water dish available but don't tend to use it an awful lot so I make sure they are bathed and given the opportunity to drink once a week.  The best type of cave I have found is old roof tiles of varying sizes and shape.  They hold the warmth, are good for climbing over and the perfect size for Russian tortoises.  Plants make the enclosure look more attractive but be warned, they probably won't last long once the tortoises have worked out how to reach them.   They had a 160 Watt Active UV Light suspended over one end of the enclosure.   The Active UV Lights act as a heat and UV source so separate bulbs are not needed and it can be adjusted to create the right temperatures.  Try to aim for a cool end of 65F and a hot spot of approx. 85 - 90.  I have found that Russian tortoises do well in a varying temperatures rather than a constant one but be wary of tortoises kept in greenhouses and the temperatures it can reach with a small amount of sun.   Overheating can be fatal!

 

As I said above, the Russians now have their own heated greenhouse with direct access to their outside enclosure as and when they want it.  The polycarbonate greenhouse is mounted on brick foundations which are 2ft into the ground to stop any escape attempts or rodents etc digging in.  Two bricks have been left out of the foundation wall to make an entrance and some hosepipe was sunk into the concrete of the opening while setting to allow drainage in rainy times.  This set-up has proved to be perfect for them as they now have complete control over their temperatures and whereabouts.   The greenhouse is fitted with 3 high wattage basking lights which the tortoises use extensively in inclement weather.  Night time heat (when needed in the early spring/late autumn) is by way of a tubular heater wired into a thermostat and an electric heater (again on a thermostat) set to come on when the nights get cold (below 10C).  There are various hiding places in the greenhouses such as roof tiles and half plants pots but by far their favourite is a wooden house (something like a small dog kennel). They pile up in there and only use the others if there is "no room at the Inn"!  A few of the tortoises choose to spend their nights outside under favoured bushes and terracotta tiles and as long as the temperatures aren't too cold at night, I allow them to have that choice. 

 

 

 

 

 

Outdoor Accommodation

 

Russians just love being outside 'doing their thing' so the more opportunity they have, the happier they will be.  My outside enclosures are made of log roll, ensuring that there are no corners for 'shimmying', and no opportunities to dig out.  I try to create as much interest inside the enclosures as possible again using edible plants, shrubs, caves, rocks, mounds of soil & sand, logs etc.  Be wary of areas that could have been sprayed with pesticides or weed killers and ensure that all the plants in your enclosure are non-toxic.   As my Russians have direct access from their greenhouse, the outside enclosure is used every day, even in inclement weather.  They warm up under the lights and then they go outside to forage etc.  I can't stress enough how important it is for Russians to have these opportunities, they just don't seem to thrive being kept indoors. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diet

Russian tortoises can eat for England.  In their natural habitat, they are "programmed" to eat as much as they can in the short amount of time they have.  They spend as much as 7 or 8 months of the year either hibernating from the extreme cold, or aestivating from the extreme heat. This means they have to make the most of the little time they have available to them when the temperatures are suitable.   Horsfields enjoy a wide range of varied broad-leafed weeds such as dandelion, plantain, clover, sow-thistle, bittercress, shepherd's purse, hawksbit etc.  They also love flowers and will enjoy these as a daily addition to their diet.  Some to look out for are hibiscus, lavatera, mallow, campanula, pansies, dandelion flowers, honeysuckle and sedum.   Personally, I don't give my tortoises any fruit as I don't see the need.  It is not an addition that they would find readily in the wild, can culminate in diarrhoea if fed too often, and may also encourage parasite problems.  All feeds are supplemented with calcium carbonate (I use Limestone Flour) and twice weekly, their food is sprinkled with a multivitamin and mineral supplement such as Vitasaur, Nutrobal or Vionate.  A group of Russians can be quite vicious in their feeding frenzy, so I tend to scatter the food out all over the enclosure which separates them out a little and also makes them go to look for their food.  Russian tortoises can easily become fat, although they don't tend to show the pyramiding that other species are vulnerable to from overfeeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hibernation

Hibernation is a natural part of the wild Horsfields' cycle, so I feel we should replicate this in captivity.  As long as your tortoise is of a good weight according to his size, and hasn't had any major health problems in the last 6 months, then there is no reason not to.  Some people believe that small tortoises shouldn't be hibernated but if they are healthy, why not?  That is, after all, what they would do in the wild.  

I try to leave hibernation as late in the year as possible, especially considering the warm autumns we have had over the last few years.  The later they get up in the spring, the more weeds and sun there will be for them.   I wind my Russians down for hibernation over a period of 4 weeks.  The first two weeks are spent with full summer time temperatures, ie full basking/UV light, but with no food.  They are bathed and given the opportunity to drink during this time every 3-4 days.  The temperatures need to be kept at a normal level for a period of time to keep the digestive system working properly to pass through any food that they have recently eaten.  On the 3rd week, the lights are turned off but night time background heating is kept on in the greenhouse should the temperatures fall low.  By this time they are starting to slow right down and don't emerge from their caves so much.  The 4th week is spent with no basking or UV and the night time heating is turned right down so that it will only come on if the temperatures fall right down.  This is to cool them down in preparation for going into the fridge, which is where I hibernate all my tortoises.  During this process, the tortoises are bathed regularly.  It is important that they are well hydrated when going into hibernation.

 

The tortoise refrigerator is set up several weeks prior to use which allows time to set the thermostats and monitor the temperatures.  The fridge is filled with bottles of water to help obtain some mass inside the fridge, which will in turn help to stabilize the temperatures.  The ideal temperature for the fridge is 5C but a variance between 3C - 8C is fine.  You can monitor this easily by using a digital max/min thermometer with a probe positioned inside the fridge.  Once the tortoises are ready for hibernation, place them in cardboard boxes filled with substrate.  Shredded paper, hemp or soil can be used, it's purely down to personal preference.   Place the boxes inside the fridge with the thermometer probe next to the tortoises.  You may find that once the tortoises are inside, the fridge temps will fluctuate slightly and settle again after approximately 12-24 hours .  Make sure you open the fridge door once daily which allows for fresh air exchange, or alternatively, you can use an aquarium air pump pipe fed through the seal of the door to allow continual air exchange.   Once the tortoises are inside, they can be monitored easily and weighed weekly to ensure that excessive weight loss is not occurring.  I have found that using this method, weight loss is absolutely minimal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breeding 

Over the last few years, I have been lucky enough to have hatched baby Russians.  I felt this was a major achievement as they aren't commonly bred in this country which means people are still buying them from pet shops where they have been "farmed" and imported or worse, wild caught!  

Courtship and mating is quite an aggressive affair with Russians and you must be ready to separate the males from the females if need be.  Females can become very stressed with the continual advances of a male.  Male Russians butt and bite the females in an attempt to get them to stand still long enough for mating to happen.  When they achieve this and the female cooperates, the male will mount the female and open his mouth widely giving out high pitched "squeaks".   It doesn't tend to last too long and then they will both go about their normal business of eating and basking.  

 

If the mating is successful, in a short time you will have a female tortoise that wants to lay her eggs.   Tortoises are usually quite choosy about the conditions they lay in as in the wild, they want to be pretty sure their eggs have a good chance of survival.   Signs of a gravid female are "leg wiggling", loss of appetite, aggression towards other tortoises and general pacing.  Gravid females must be given access to a quiet area in which to lay their eggs without the continual interruption of other tortoises.   They tend to lay their eggs in an area near to shrub roots or rocks, maybe to give themselves something to hold on to whilst digging the nest.   They tend to sniff and test the ground to find a suitable site and the substrate should be neither too wet or too dry which would mean the nest would cave in on itself.  When I know a female is ready to lay, I usually damp down the nest site with a kettle full of water in the morning which provides the right consistency for nest digging.   A basking lamp is suspended above the nesting site (if inside) to give a temperature of approx. 90F.   The female may dig several trial nests which she then abandons and this is quite normal.  One of my females did this for four weeks before digging a nest that she deemed to be satisfactory.   The nest is dug as deeply with her back legs as she can reach with a "bowl" shape at the end.  She may spend several hours working away at the nest site and scoops the soil out with her back legs.   When she is satisfied with the nest, she will then brace her back legs against the sides of the nest to allow the egg to protrude from her cloaca.  Once each egg is laid, she will gently move it into position with her legs and then lay another.  Clutch sizes vary with each species and each individual tortoise but in general terms, an average sized female Russian will lay 2-3 eggs at a time.  The eggs are surprisingly large and elongated for such a small tortoise and that may be why the clutch sizes are quite small compared to other species.  Once all the eggs are laid, she will reverse her earlier digging and fill the nest back in carefully.  This again can take several hours and is remarkably undetectable if you haven't witnessed the event.  I always give them a nice warm bath and a pile of food once they have laid, they have worked hard and you would expect the same after a long labour wouldn't you!

 

It's now time for you to transfer the eggs from the nest site to an incubator.  Carefully dig up the nest and retrieve the eggs marking them on the top with a soft pencil.   Some people say that the eggs should be kept the same way up straight after laying while others say the first few days don't matter.  I would rather play safe and keep them the same way up that they were laid.  They are then placed carefully in the incubator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Incubation 

 

I use a home made incubator which has worked well for me.  It is a large polystyrene box (the type that tropical fish are transported in) with air holes made in the top and the sides.   The heat is provided by a heat mat which is wired into a thermostat and the temperature set at 31.5 - 32C.  The probe for the thermostat is placed directly next to the incubating eggs.  A min/max thermometer is also used so that temperatures can be checked daily.  I use a substrate of vermiculite which has worked well and the eggs are placed gently on the top.   I also have a small bowl of water inside the incubator giving a humidity reading of approx. 50-60%.  Bricks or large stones are placed in the incubator which help stabilize the temperatures. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hatching 

After approximately 55+ days, if the eggs are fertile, you should have babies emerging.  Once the hatchlings are ready to emerge, they will begin by making a small hole in the egg which is known as "pipping".  They may then sit in the egg for a couple of days or they may hatch much quicker.  It is worth noting that not all eggs from the same clutch hatch at the same time, I have had hatchlings emerge as much as two weeks apart.  The baby will break open the egg piece by piece until it climbs out fully.   Once the baby has emerged, it should be given a nice warm bath and they generally drink straight away.   It should then be placed in a previously prepared enclosure.  I generally use kitchen towels as a substrate until the egg sac is absorbed fully and once this has happened, they can be put into a suitable enclosure outside if the weather is nice enough.  They then are treated the same as the adults with the exception of bathing them everyday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basic Health Care

 

There is no substitute for having your tortoise checked out by a good qualified vet that has experience with reptiles, but there are some basic measures you can take at home which will hopefully cut down on your need to see a vet.  The most important thing you can do is to monitor your tortoise regularly by checking weights and general condition, this will alert you early should any problems arise, and allow you to get to a qualified vet before things progress any further.

Make sure that the eyes are clear and bright, and not sticky.  The nose should be clean and dry. Check the skin carefully for any signs of cuts or abrasions, and the joints for swellings.   Also keep a careful eye on the condition of the shell.  Any signs of abnormalities such as soft or discoloured areas or cracks/chips which, if left, could lead to shell rot, should be checked by a qualified vet.  Tortoises' beaks and claws can sometimes need some attention, especially if not kept on varying terrains which would normally prevent them from them growing too long.  If they do need shortening, you can gently do this with a strong emery board, taking off a little at a time.  If you are not confident in doing this, again take the tortoise to a vet who will show you how.

If you do suspect a problem with your tortoise, don't delay in getting advice, as tortoises can be slow to show signs of illness, and by the time you spot it, it could have been developing for a while.

 

 

These notes are not intended as a complete and comprehensive guide on how to keep Russian tortoises, but purely information and tips on how I keep mine and what works well for me in my part of the country.   If you need further information, please see the links section on my home page.