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Feeding Tortoises

There are many species of tortoise kept as pets in the UK these days. From the well-known Hermann's & Mediterranean Spur-thighed tortoises that have been around for decades (used to be imported illegally, but fortunately this practice is banned in favour of the UK bred versions), the hardy Russian Horsfields tortoise, mostly bred outdoors in Europe as well as by UK breeders and finally the other species from hotter areas such as the South American Red & Yellow foots, the HUGE African Sulcatas and the stunning Leopard tortoises & Indian Stars (side note: none of these hotter species should be hibernated).

This article will mainly concentrate on the first 3 species, as they have similar diets and it is relatively easy to find enough decent food with enough variety with just a small amount of effort to feed these without breaking the bank - in the summer it is possible to feed these guys absolutely for free as long as you're prepared to go outside for a small forage!

Why I don't recommend bagged salads/lettuce.

Many people get a tortoise and assume they can just give bagged salad as food. Although this will not kill the tortoise and is fine in an emergency, bagged salad will not provide enough variety nor adequate vitamins (including the all important Vitamin A) to sustain the tortoise long term. All tortoise require a source of calcium, most commony provided by a cuttlefish bone (best broken in two so the tortoise has easy access to the softer centre). Some people sprinkle calcium powder on the tortoises leafy greens, but this doesn't let the tortoise control its own intake of calcum and can sometimes put him off eating the food as the powder supplement tastes bitter. Tortoises are great at seeking out calcium as and when they require it so as long as they have access to a cuttlefish bone, this should suffice.

Also I occasionally meet tortoise owners that feed vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers etc This is not the correct diet for tortoises. Carrots do not get digested propery anyway and its best to stick to dark leafy greens. Please note that both kale and spinach are NOT suitable, this is because they are calcium-binding, which basically means they prevent the tortoise metabolising any calcium, which is obviously essential for growth.

There is an exception to the bagged salad rule, some bagged leaves CAN be given or mixed in with other weeds plants, these include watercress, peashoots, rocket and lambs lettuce. Also some herbs such as mint, oregano, parsley, corriander & marjoram can be bought as well as grown outside in your garden and are also great for variety.

The better (and cheaper/free!) alternative is to find a variety of weeds and plants from your garden or outdoors. In the summer this is super easy to do and even in the winter, it is possible to find suitable plants if you don't mind facing the slightly colder/wetter weather!

Where to find information and a list of safe plants & weeds to feed.

After several years of practise, I have a good idea of where to source a good mix of suitable weeds and plants in my local area. I personally own 3 different species of tortoise - 4 Red foots, a pair of box 'turtles' (actually a type of tortoise) and a horsfields tortoise. The red foots are huge and if it were not for my foraging for food outside, they'd cost me so much money as they collectively would eat a good sized carrier bags worth of food every day!

I have 'The Tortoise Table' app on my phone and the great thing about it is that it lists all plants with photos as well as a traffic light colour code to show if something is totally safe, ok in moderation, feed sparingly or toxic. There is also two really informative facebook groups that are extremely helpful with regard to helping their members idenfify various safe plants when out and about. They are called 'Tortoise Plant Addicts' and 'Tortoise Addicts'. You can literally take a photo of a plant you find out and about, post it to the group and then someone will usually quickly get back to you whether it is suitable or not to feed to your tortoise.(They also have lots of care sheets for various tortoise breeds as well). They also have 'safe feed sheets' which are photos of different plants which are safe to feed that make it much easier to identify the different species of plants when you are out and about.

What if my tortoise eats something it shouldn't?

Most of the plants that are listed as 'toxic'to tortoises are because long term, the ingestion of these plants cause various toxins to build up in the organs in the body. So generally tortoises don't continue to munch on things that make them ill if there is choice. I imagine that they might experience a feeling of indigestion or maybe a weird taste that puts them off, so they'll just move onto the next plant and remember to leave that 'bad' plant alone in future. Eating the odd 'bad' leaf here and there probably isn't going to be too harmful, it's just repeated exposure that will allow toxins to build up to dangerous levels in liver or kidneys etc It's worth noting that one of the only confirmed case of the death of a tortoise as the result of plant poisoning on record was an owner who fed their tortoise buttercups (and not much else) without realising that buttercups are toxic. In this instance the tortoise had no safe alternative and sadly died.

Start with the basics

It is easy to find lots of long lists of safe plants to feed your tortoise online, the problem is often that they are either have latin names or no photos. For someone starting out, this can be confusing. I started with some of the common weeds that I was already familiar with, such as dandelion (flowers & leaves), dead nettle (purple & white), plantain (all varieties), milk thistle (all varieties use scissors!), cats ear leaves (looks like a small dandelion plant with plump leaves) and bristly oxtongue (use scissors!).

As your confidence grows you can add more and more species of plant as you find them. One of my friends completely feeds plants from her local area and even keeps a note of when the council are due to mow the hedgerows and nips out for a forage before they do! There are also lots of safe flowers that add a bright splash of colour that can be fed as well, such as Marigold, Pansy, Hollyhock, lady's purse, Red Valerian & Viola.

A few ideas (Source: The Tortoise Table App)

Here is a non-exhaustive list of just a few of the other plants listed on the tortoise table app that I haven't already mentioned:

  • Creeping thistle
  • Evening primrose
  • Field Madder
  • Forget-me-not
  • Geranium
  • Goats Beard
  • Hawksbeard
  • False dandelion
  • Knapweed
  • Mother of pearl plant
  • Nipplewort
  • Sweet violet

If in doubt its best to avoid it until you have confirmation that a plan is safe. Remember you can mix these with most herbs as well as bought leaves such as rocket, watercress & peashoots. As a treat, the tops of strawberries can be given too, although with the 3 common tortoise species in question, it is not advisable to feed any other fruit.

Feeding other species of tortoise.

The other species that I initially mentioned such as the desert varieties (Sulcata, Leopard, Indian star) would eat a variety of leaves, however these require less moist leaves and more dried grasses. The leopard tortoises require a variety of fresh hay/grasses & succulents - too much 'salad' would not be good for these. The sulcatas are particularly fond of cacti and succulents and a diet full of fresh moist leaves especially salad is considered too rich for their digestive system.

Red and yellow foot tortoises, as well as my box 'turtles' will eat a large variety of fruit. They live in groups in the jungle and feed on carrion - dead animals that fall to the floor of the jungle - so it is important to also provide some meat in their diet around once a week. I feed defrosted frozen chicks or mice. They are particularly useful as 'dustbins' for finishing off any rodents not eaten by my snakes! I like these tortoises because they are so easy to feed - lots of weeds, lots of tropical fruit (they ADORE prickly pears!) such as bananas, strawberries, melon, papaya & mango and the odd bit of meat and they are happy and healthy. They even don't mind if the fruit is a little 'off' or past its best!

The box turtles eat all of the above but also enjoy a few insects, their favourite is definitely morioworms. They chase them around and crunch into them with glee!

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