LocationAway from public view is a must. Theft of tortoises is becoming more prevalent so take care of your precious pets and don't have them on public view.
Do you trust your neighbours enough to have the tortoise seen by them and any visitors they may have?
Are you worried about workmen overlooking enclosures from surrounding gardens?
TimeHow long will the tortoise be in this area? If you intend to keep your tortoise outdoors the year round then electricity will have to be provided.
Different Habitats for Different SpeciesResearch your species. Know what the natural habitat looks like and try to replicate this: e.g. Red-foots require filtered sunshine, whilst Leopards require a high level of good quality sunshine and grass areas. Horsfields are notorious for digging so will require a strong, perimeter fencing set below ground to a depth of about 1-2 ft.
NumbersAre you looking to extend the tortoise ‘family’? If so a quarantine area will be required for any new arrivals.
Type of Housing
Tortoise houses vary hugely in size, shape, and materials, but they all have the same purpose: to keep your tortoise safe, provide a basking spot and shelter them during inclement weather.
GreenhouseA greenhouse provides a bright environment for your tortoise. During the warmer months of the year, please remember that greenhouses heat up quickly so you must leave the door open for ventilation which will prevent your tortoises from becoming too hot: over-heating can be fatal in small tortoises; they are far better off being too cool than too hot! If you have windows in your greenhouse, you can buy automatic window openers that will open and close the windows as the temperature rises and falls. Although windows will automatically open, this may not be enough! Free access needs to be provided to the outdoors allowing the tortoise to reach cooler temperatures. This could be as simple as standing the greenhouse on bricks and omitting one or two to form a doorway.
Greenhouses are very popular with keepers who have lots of tortoises; you may already have one in your garden that could be used as a tortoise house with a few modifications.
This is the inside a greenhouse which has an electricity supply to it. It has two basking lights and an insulated sleeping area with a tubular heater. This is perfect for large tortoises that need lots of room.
Insulation on cooler days and in winter can become problematic, and arriving at the correct temperature can be hard to achieve. The inside of this greenhouse has been insulated with bubble wrap to help eliminate draughts and keep the heat in.
Regular checks need to be made to ensure that no water leaks into or near electricity.
ShedA shed is often very dull inside so if you are thinking of purchasing a new shed look for one with windows that you can open for ventilation. If the shed is constructed of wood then a great deal can be added to the inside to insulate it, such as an inner layer of foil insulation on a role, boarded with white board to brighten the shed interior, which will make reaching and maintaining the required temperatures far easier in cooler weather.
Combination of both a Greenhouse and a ShedThis is an ideal outdoor set up as it allows for the keeper to provide the best of both worlds giving the tortoise the choice of what area she or he needs to be in. Ideally, a shed would have the greenhouse attached to it with the tortoise being able to walk from door hatch from the shed into the greenhouse and then via a hatch into an outdoor area. If the shed and greenhouse aren't attached if the tortoise can freely access both then this works well too.
ColdframesFor small tortoises, a cold frame is another ideal solution. They work well if placed on a course of bricks, leaving a brick out to use as a doorway for the tortoises to access their enclosure. The added height of the bricks will allow room to suspend a basking light which, unless it is a combined UVB bulb, you can use in conjunction with a thermostat to regulate the temperatures within the cold frame. UVB bulbs are not compatible with thermostats as they must cool down once they are switched off before they can come back on. If your tortoises are outside 24/7 then a normal basking bulb is sufficient, as the tortoises will benefit from the natural UVB from the sun.
Natural predators are always a threat, so make sure your greenhouse/cold frame is securely closed during the night to keep your tortoises safe.
Garden ShedA garden shed can also be easily and cheaply adapted to house tortoises safely and securely. You may need additional light inside, as sheds can sometimes be a bit dark, particularly early in the morning when you want your tortoises to wake up! Below is a picture of a shed with an extra entrance cut into the side, just for access for the tortoises, which saves having to have your shed door open when you aren’t around.
Small Tortoise HouseSmall tortoise houses are perfect if you just have 1 or 2 tortoises and although they will provide shelter they aren't large enough for a heat supply so your tortoise will need to be brought indoors in cooler weather, especially at night.
BreedingIf tortoises are breeding you will need to provide south-facing nesting sites in outdoor areas and nesting boxes in sheds/greenhouses.
Enclosure ConstructionSo, now that you have decided where your enclosure will be, and that the substrate and any plants within that area are safe, you will need to decide what materials to use to build the enclosure perimeters. There are many to choose from, some more permanent than others.
Take into account, before you decide, that tortoises are good climbers and do not like being able to see through their boundaries. If they can, they will become very frustrated as they will continually try to get beyond them. Wire mesh sidewalls of enclosures are not advised unless there is a deep solid frame at the base.
Don’t put any boundaries up against a tree, for example, as this will become a ladder for tortoises to escape by. Keep shrubs trimmed that are near boundary fencing.
The most popular materials are bricks, breeze blocks, wooden fencing and new railway sleepers (not used sleepers as they will have been coated with creosote which is very poisonous). Whatever you choose to use must be sturdy, safe, high enough that your tortoise cannot see over and impossible to climb up! A lip around the top of the perimeter boundary will help prevent any potential escapees. When you have finished your enclosure, always double-check for gaps: if you don’t find them, your tortoise will.
Position of the Tortoise Enclosure In an ideal world, every tortoise would be lucky enough to live in a south-facing garden to enable them to benefit from the vital UVB rays they need.
Sadly, we aren’t all that lucky, but with a little planning, you can give them as much sun as possible. Tortoises like to bask when they wake up in the morning, so providing an easterly facing basking spot will help them display this very natural behaviour. It helps to watch your garden for a few days to see which parts get the most sunshine and for how long.
Although UVB is essential to tortoises, shade is also just as important. Tortoises will bask in the sunshine to raise their core body temperature to at least 27°C (80°F), as at this temperature they can digest their food. However, they cannot regulate their temperature so will need a shaded area to cool off. Providing numerous shady areas in different parts of their enclosure will give the tortoise plenty of opportunity to cool down when necessary.
PondsNo matter how vigilant you are your tortoise at some point will escape or walk out of your view. Ponds should either have sturdy mesh over the top, be raised, or be fenced all around and there shouldn't be any plants near the edges that tortoises can use as a makeshift ladder.
BoundariesThese need to be strong and solid. If a tortoise can see out s/he will become more and more stressed trying to get out. Keeping other animals and children out is equally as important as keeping the tortoise(s) in.
Drainage for time of flash floodingWith the flash floods we have seen becoming increasingly more common, drainage -- whether it be plug holes in a rabbit cage type set-up used outdoors, or whether it be adding more sand to the substrate mixture and a layer of stones beneath the substrate -- becomes more important.
FurnitureA selection of media should be placed in an enclosure, including plants for shade, rocks for climbing on and different textures of substrate, which may include garden soil, large pebbles and stones. Also wood, shells, old chimney pots, terracotta pots turned on their side, (these make good hides) and slate tiles add to the interest for the tortoise.
Try measuring the temperature between a soil patch and a stone area next to each other. You will find that the stone area will act like a storage heater which your tortoise would be far happier sitting on awaiting the mid-day sun. They adore basking on a south-facing slope so the more choice you give your tortoise the happier s/he will be.
Size of the Tortoise EnclosureAs big as possible has to be the best rule of thumb. This enclosure will be your tortoise’s permanent home from spring until hibernation time, so as much room as you can give will be ideal.
If you have hatchling or young juveniles, try to place your enclosure somewhere you can extend and add to as they grow.
You will need to provide basking spots, shade, interest and sleeping quarters, so a sketch of what will go where will help you decide if the area is big enough or not.
These are typical enclosures for small juvenile tortoises: They provide lots of room, plenty of interest, benefit from lots of sunshine and as shown, could also be attached to a cold frame to provide heat, shade and protection.
Larger tortoises need more space and the garden can easily be attractively designed to accommodate them.
A large animal cage can be adapted to securely house baby tortoises outdoors.
Substrate for Outdoor Tortoise Enclosures
Mediterranean SpeciesBefore you decide which materials you would like to build your perimeters, first look at the substrate. Is it a lawned area? If so, this will need to be dug up if you keep Mediterranean species of tortoises as they do not like grass as their only substrate. Tortoises kept on damp grass can lead to respiratory infections, and over time, cause shell rot.
A mixture of 50% top soil and 50% play sand is the best substrate for all Mediterranean species as the sand will provide drainage. Only use play sand as other types of sand often have large particles of silica in them, and this can cause impaction if ingested.
Grazing SpeciesGrazing species may also like an area in their outdoor enclosure of top soil and play sand but they need free access to grassy areas too.
Forest DwellersForest species like a substrate a top soil/play sand substrate, but they would appreciate leaf mulch and sphagnum moss in an area where they have plenty of shade if needed.
If the area you have chosen already has soil you will need to add sand to this to enable it to dry out quicker after wet weather, which is sadly all too frequent in the UK! You will need to check for plants and weeds already growing in that area. Are they all safe? Can you identify them? Has any weed killer or fertiliser been used in recent months? If this is the case, it would be safest to dig out the soil, and any dangerous plants, and completely replace with fresh top soil/sand.
If you wish to keep a Horsfield (Russian) tortoise you must dig at least 1 foot down and line this whole area with either chicken wire, breeze blocks or similar bricks. Alternatively, dig the perimeter fence 1-2 feet below ground so that the tortoise can freely burrow in the enclosure but cannot dig its way out. Russian tortoises will by nature dig -- and sometimes a long way down. They are strong little tortoises and can easily dig very long tunnels: therefore you need to make sure they cannot tunnel out of their enclosure. If you haven’t kept this species before, do not underestimate their ability to burrow! Securing this area is vital or they will either escape or burrow down at hibernation time. Our winters are far too unpredictable -- and often too cold -- to safely allow a tortoise to hibernate outdoors.
On a concrete area or paved garden, you will have a secure base to avoid escape, to which can be added fresh soil and sand to provide a substrate. However, it would be wise to ensure that there is adequate drainage.
Useful tips for using in Outdoor Tortoise Enclosures
1. Additional warm up areas in outdoor enclosuresDig down in the enclosure to make a decent sized square or rectangular shape large enough to accommodate your tortoises and line the base with stones or a paving slab to absorb heat. Line the sides with decking boards or similar and use transparent plastic, glass or, as in the case of the picture below, an old fridge shelf for the lid. The tortoises will love to go in there for a warm up during the day.
Don't throw away your old fish tank. Turn it upside down and site it on bricks or similar sturdy base. Another lovely basking spot for your tortoise.
It's easy to make a homemade cloche from plastic bottles. Tie the bottles together with string as shown below and peg them to the ground using tent pegs or something similar.
You can purchase a cheap cloche to give the greenhouse effect outdoors. This one cost just £1.
2. Protect your plants from being eaten down to the groundCut the top and bottom off plastic drink bottles and use the body to form a tube which you push into the ground over any plant you are trying to grow. It may be necessary to push the tube deeply down into the ground, as a determined tortoise will push it over to get to the plant.
Use a circle of log roll within the enclosure to place around a weed bed while plants have a chance to grow.
Turn a wire hanging basket upside down and place over plants. In this way, your tortoise can nibble on parts of the plant that grow through the basket but cannot demolish the whole plant.
3. Cuttlefish BoneThrow a cuttlefish bone into the enclosure and your tortoise will nibble on it freely. It helps provide the tortoise with extra calcium and also helps to keep the beak trim. Tortoises seem to prefer the cuttlefish bone to be weathered.
4. Plants and Shrubs for Outdoor Tortoise EnclosuresTortoises are naturally greedy -- it’s instinct with them. Food can be scarce in the wild depending on weather conditions, so they are biologically programmed to eat whatever they can in case it’s a long time until they find food again, and this is particularly noticeable in Russian tortoises. Obviously, in captivity we ration their food to prevent too much weight gain, so avoid filling their enclosure with tempting juicy food or they will eat until it’s all gone!
- Tortoises love to hide under shady plants or grasses. But most of all they enjoy free foraging!
- Consider having more than one outside area for your tortoise. Two areas allow for one to be rested and plants to regrow.
- Also be aware of plants, trees and shrubs that surround/overhang the enclosure. Do you know what they are? Are they safe or poisonous to tortoises?
- Ensure plants are not growing against perimeter borders otherwise the tortoise may use them as a ladder and escape.
Plants and Shrubs for shadeWhen planning what plants you want, try and provide shrubs and grasses that will offer shade but also act as decoration which will stimulate your tortoise’s interest in their surroundings. For example, a Mediterranean tortoise such as a Hermann would naturally come across Thyme, Lavender and Rosemary shrubs in the wild. Although they may nibble on these plants, they would generally be used as a cool, shaded area during the hottest part of the day and camouflage from predators. These shrubs and many others are ideal for planting in an enclosure.
Below, you can see a Hermann taking shelter from the sun under a Rosemary bush.
For a full and comprehensive list of edible and safe plants and shrubs please refer to The Tortoise Table plant database.
Include a Weed Bed in your GardenSourcing safe and untreated weeds can be a problem for lots of keepers, so planting and maintaining your own weed bed is an absolute must with most owners, particularly those who keep several tortoises. Weeds, by nature, tend to thrive in poor soil without any tender loving care, as any keen gardener will no doubt tell you, so even a novice should have no difficulty growing a nutritious, safe and varied diet for whichever species they keep. Most packets of seeds that will grow into weeds suitable for tortoises contain a big variety of weeds and wildflowers, and you simply sprinkle them over a poorer area of your garden and just leave them to grow and thrive, remembering to water them during dry periods.
By now you have decided where you want your enclosure, how big it will be, what you want to build it out of and how safe and secure it will be. Most of the hard work is almost done and you can concentrate on making it an interesting and varied home for your tortoise.