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Outdoor Accommodation in a Colder (UK) Climate

Discussion in 'Tortoise Enclosures' started by JoesMum, Apr 28, 2016.

  1. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    Background

    We live in the UK and have had our Greek, Joe, a male Testudo Graeca Graeca (TGG), since 1970. He is full grown, weighing in at around 3.2kg (7lb) and measures just over 26cm (10”) Straight Carapace Length (SCL)

    He would have been wild caught, so was not a baby when he joined the family.

    Joe is a “garden tortoise” living outdoors from when he comes out of hibernation, usually March-April, until he goes back into hibernation which can be any time from mid-October onwards. In recent years late November to early December has been typical.

    For a tortoise of Joe’s size, there are few predators in the UK that could be a problem to him. If you have a smaller animal, and depending on where you live, then you need to be aware that creatures like foxes, badgers, buzzards, red kite and rats could all be a potential risk.

    I have put this document together in an attempt to collate my tips for keeping a tortoise outdoors and healthy when temperatures and weather are not always ideal. I am not using this to offer advice about food, water or hibernation though all 3 get a mention. This is not the only way to do it. It is what we have used successfully for many years.


    Climate

    We live in Kent in the South East of England where the weather is generally warmer and dryer than much of the UK. However, we do get the cold and the rain, especially in the spring and autumn. Like the rest of the UK, the weather is unpredictable and what happens cannot be guaranteed from one week to the next, sometimes from one hour to the next.

    When the sun is out, temperatures at ground level in a sheltered spot are considerably hotter than the air temperature shown on the weather forecast. As with keeping a tort indoors, what harms a tort is being cold and/or wet for an extended period - even getting caught out in a cold shower is unlikely to harm your tort; they happen in the wild from time to time too. Obviously care needs to be taken to ensure that there's no flood risk.

    Joe could not live outdoors for this entire period without some help from us. The cool mornings of spring and autumn in particular do not provide enough basking heat for him to get started.


    Post hibernation

    I look for the air temperature rising to about 11C (53F) by day before Joe is brought out of hibernation. Accuweather’s website for your town gives you a pretty good indication of trends.

    When I get him up, he gets a long warm soak immediately and continues to get one twice a day until he is clearly fully awake and eating and drinking properly.

    At my herp vet’s recommendation, I add Reptoboost electrolyte to his soaking water in this period to help counteract the dehydration of hibernation.

    Depending on the weather outside, Joe will spend much of his time in our conservatory doing very little at first; the floor is cleared of all objects he could eat or attempt to mate with just in case. After a few days, he will do an enormous pee with a load of urate, and probably a poop, and the eating and drinking kicks backs in.

    Joe under the Basking Lamp in the conservatory. UVB lighting is not necessary as Joe spends so little time indoors.

    Lamp.JPG


    Basking outdoors

    A tortoise, being cold blooded, needs to absorb heat from an external source in order to be active and also to digest food. If the sun is out then everything is great and a well-basked tortoise can be literally hot to handle.

    A larger tort like Joe takes longer to cool down than a small one. A good charge under the basking lamp can last him a couple of hours on a cold day. Smaller torts will need to bask more frequently.

    If the night is too cold then it takes much longer for a tort to warm up and become active which reduces the amount of time available for it to eat and digest.

    In spring and autumn, it can be assumed that the nights will be cold, frost is a risk, and that the mornings will be chilly; some days the sun will be amazing and some days it will rain or worse all day. You must be constantly aware of the forecast and be ready to react to it.


    Garden Adaptations

    Cold Frame

    Your tort needs a good start to the day. Keep him indoors (a box will do) overnight if there’s any risk of frost. If he sleeps outdoors, he needs to be dry and protected from the cold. For this we have a Cold Frame located in a spot in the garden that gets the sun first thing.

    If using a cold frame, make sure that rain water doesn't drain through it. Locate it in a sheltered spot, against a fence say, so that the earth underneath it stays dry when it's raining.

    Joe usually chooses to sleep in it, but when he doesn’t then I wait until he’s clearly cooled down and then pop him in. Do it too early and he’ll simply go and sleep elsewhere.

    Joe’s original was a garden centre cold frame with a perspex (plexiglass) roof – this one was built by my father in law. It has no floor as he likes to dig into the bare earth and has straw in one end so he can push under it. The area in front of the door is empty and a popular basking spot

    Cold frame 1.jpg
    Cold frame 2.jpg

    The cold frame is great for the mornings in the summer, but in the spring it doesn’t provide enough heat to charge up a tortoise for the day ahead.

    Dog Kennel with a Basking Lamp

    We have lined this with silver reflective insulation. The roof is hinged and we put a plastic mat on the floor to make cleaning easier. It came with the clear door curtain which helps keep the interior warmer. There’s also a water bowl. The lamp is on a timer, so the kennel is warming up by the time I put Joe in it to start the day. Joe can return to the kennel at any time during the day if he chooses to bask again. Note the step: Joe is big and can climb; smaller torts may need a ramp!

    Kennel.JPG

    Blue Slate Chips

    Tortoises know where the warm spots are and will gravitate toward them. Typically they are sheltered by plants, they don’t like to feel exposed, and get full sun. The sun isn’t that warm early and late in the year, so we have laid Blue Slate Chips on the ground. These absorb what little heat is around surprisingly quickly and Joe loves lying on them as he basks.

    Stone 1.JPG

    If Joe’s starting to find it a bit hot, he will move so that only part of his plastron rests on the stone chips. This picture was taken on a cold day in April when it snowed later in the day – he still managed to get a bit too warm! Stone 2.JPG

    I have started a thread showing the effect of Blue Slate on temperature. It can be found here:
    http://www.tortoiseforum.org/threads/demonstrating-the-effect-of-blue-slate-on-temperature.141716/


    Ongoing

    As the year rolls on, the weather does progressively get better in theory and Joe is able to be outdoors 24/7 without extra help from a lamp or soaks.

    However, a prolonged wet and chilly spell isn’t unusual at any time. A couple of days of inactivity due to bad weather will do no harm, it happens in the wild, but if the outlook is that the poor weather will be more prolonged then the kennel heat lamp is pressed back into action.

    Winding down for Hiibernation

    You must keep an eye on your tortoise’s weight throughout the year. There should be a steady gain throughout, probably levelling out late August.

    Joe hibernates, so he needs to maintain his peak weight right up until he’s boxed for the winter. By using the heat lamp in his kennel, I find Joe will keep right on eating and slow down of his own accord when the time is right.

    Please remember that he has always hibernated and we have learned over many years to read him and the weather forecast together to know when the time is right for hibernation.

    Joe will start to eat less as the days grow shorter and the weather cools. He is also less active in the garden. Gradually he will stop eating completely. Most importantly though, there will be little or no weight loss during this period.

    I look for the weather forecast to show me daytime temperatures below 10C (50F) for the week ahead before I’ll hibernate Joe. It is not unusual for the first frost of the winter to be the night Joe is packed away.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 31, 2016
  2. mibblead

    mibblead Member

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    Joe looks amazing i can't get over the size of him! Some good tips here, this is my first time with torts and terrified of the thought of hibernation so all the info i can get is a massive help!
    Conor Belton and JoesMum like this.
  3. Amron

    Amron Well-Known Member

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    I have found this article really helpful, thank you, JOE is one lucky tortoise. I looked at buying the blu slate chips today but changed my mind to wait until I have finished my enclosures.:<3::)
    JoesMum likes this.
  4. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    No tortoise has to hibernate - some species cannot. With smaller torts, it's safer not to.

    A tort must be completely healthy and at full weight for its size before attempting it. It also must have an empty stomach.

    You have to keep monitoring and weighing - if body weight drops by 10% it must be woken.

    Keeping a steady temperature of 5C can be a challenge.
    MyersTortoise and Lyn W like this.
  5. mibblead

    mibblead Member

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    The vet has told me to pop them in for a check up once the weather turns for winter and see what he thinks, hopefully I can just keep them as they are!
    JoesMum likes this.
  6. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    It's 10am on a May morning after a cold night. I have just popped out with the temp gun and done some measurements

    Air temp 13C/55F
    Ground temp in shade (had no sun) 8C/44F

    Temp on that patch of blue slate chips where Joe is basking in full sun

    28C/82F and rising!

    If you do nothing else... get some blue slate chips in the sun for your tort!
    SheldonsKeeper and Rue like this.
  7. CathyNed

    CathyNed Well-Known Member

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    Hi Joes Mum,
    How warm does your red brick edging get? Instead of the blue chips, do you think some similar coulour paving slabs would work? Just mindful that Ned doesnt raise his back shell and drags his legs somewhat. Those chips can be pretty sharp round the edges for him.
  8. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    @CathyNed The bricks don't warm up as much, or as quickly, as the slate. I did some quick measurements after the sun was out for about 90 minutes one day last week - See here:
    http://www.tortoiseforum.org/threads/demonstrating-the-effect-of-blue-slate-on-temperature.141716/

    I get the large slate chips - 4cm. The finer grade got dragged everywhere; even the birds were chucking them on the lawn. They're not particularly sharp. Although I realise Ned as issues raising himself.

    If you look at the conservatory basking lamp picture, the slab under the lamp is dark coloured. I think it was described as "slate effect" at Homebase. That would be better than brick.
  9. CathyNed

    CathyNed Well-Known Member

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    Thats what i was thinking if i used darker shaded paving slabs exactly like in your conservatory pic in the sunnier side. Less scrapung on edges of loose stone hopefully.
    JoesMum likes this.
  10. twoodsy2003

    twoodsy2003 New Member

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    Great info. I have been working up to keeping my herman out 24/7 during the summer months. This spring has been quite unperdictalbe and I have been concerned what is too cold. I put him out during the day but have been bringing him in at dusk. I have a temperature gun that reads the surface temps and see your ground temp is 44F. My question is what ground temp is too cold for my dear Cecil?
  11. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    I go by air temperature and then factor in whether or not the sun is out.

    If the temperature is above about 12C (54F) AND the sun is out then you can achieve ground temperatures in the sun conducive to basking in sheltered spots.

    My ground temperature measurement of 8C/44F was a spot in the shade that had had no sun at all that morning. I just wanted illustrate the difference the sun makes. The air temperature was warmer than that, 13C/55F, but the ground had not warmed up in the shade.

    I don't know how big your tort is. Unless he's a big lump like Joe, I wouldn't put him out unless you have the sunshine if air temperatures are below 70F

    Use your temperature gun and learn where the hot spots are in your outdoor enclosure and learn what temperatures you're achieving in it as the weather changes. The rules for outside are the same as indoors really - you need to be achieving the same temperatures for healthy activity.
  12. twoodsy2003

    twoodsy2003 New Member

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    Thanks for the reply. I will continue to monitor the ground temps. I am still working on his outdoor enclosure and will be posting pic's to get some feed back in hopes to learn ideas from others on what have worked well in the northeastern US region.
  13. JoesMum

    JoesMum Well-Known Member 5 Year Member

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    I've just taken delivery of Joe's new cold frame - built to order by UK pet housing company. I think this may be their first tortoise job :)
    ImageUploadedByTortoise Forum1466085015.381349.jpg

    I really need to prune that Japanese Maple. It's getting too big for its boots :D
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2016
    1lily0, Kristoff, Tidgy's Dad and 7 others like this.
  14. RosemaryDW

    RosemaryDW Well-Known Member TFO Supporter

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    Goodness, that's nice.
  15. Rue

    Rue Well-Known Member

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    Ditto! :)
  16. twoodsy2003

    twoodsy2003 New Member

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    Very nice! I'll look into building one before the end of summer. I'd like to try to keep him out as long as possible.
  17. CathyNed

    CathyNed Well-Known Member

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    @JoesMum Joes a lucky guy!! Cold frame looks lovely and cosy!
    JoesMum likes this.
  18. Marinated mamma

    Marinated mamma Well-Known Member

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    @JoesMum well impressive! I absolutely love it! My fella is in the process of building cold frame for my three but obviously a bit bigger I'm hoping it turns out as nice as joes! Bless him lucky little dude
    JoesMum likes this.
  19. Tidgy's Dad

    Tidgy's Dad Well-Known Member

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    Great thread, Linda.
    I love reading about how people cope keeping tortoises in different climates.
    Off to read the blue slate thread now, not that it's of much use to me, but interesting research.
    Thanks.:)
    JoesMum likes this.
  20. Rockylloyd

    Rockylloyd New Member

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    New owner of a Greek tort found this so useful thanks , don't get the weather so great here in Wales as you do in Kent , so found this extremely helpful
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