At the symposium of the British Chelonia Group in March 1987, two of the papers given were entitled "Advances in the Veterinary care over the past 20 years" and "The next 20 years - the problems that remain and the future developments" I was asked at this meeting if I would write about my personal experiences with the breeding of tortoises over the past 20 years.
It was in 1934 that I first found, and incubated tortoise eggs Tortoises were among the many animals which, as a child, I kept at our home in Cornwall In those days, tortoises were sold in most pet shops, 6d. for small ones, 1/6d for large with no indication as to sex or species and certainly no advice on husbandry With four or five tortoises roaming the garden, no doubt I did have a mixture of sexes and as I think at that time the imports were mainly from N. Africa, my tortoises were probably the spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca One summer afternoon, to my amazement and delight I watched one of my tortoises Jay two eggs in the middle of the lawn My father hired an incubator from a local farmer and the two precious eggs were placed inside There they stayed for many weeks as I watched with growing excitement and impatience. How long they remained and at what temperature my father kept the incubator, I cannot now remember but my disappointment was intense when both eggs turned grey and the incubator was returned to the farmer.
A world war, many moves, marriage, all the original tortoises had died and the time came in 1960 when my own sons were old enough to take an interest in pets. Another summer afternoon in the garden and this time, I watched a newly imported female T graeca digging a nest and laying seven eggs.
Who was there to ask for advice? My first 'phone call was to the Reptile House at The London Zoo in Regents Park The reply was most discouraging - "The eggs are unlikely to be fertile. You can put them in a warm place, such as an airing-cupboard, but if they do hatch, you will never rear young tortoises in this country." Twelve weeks later my informant was proved wrong on the first count but the four baby tortoises that hatched only lived for about six months. The only vitamin supplement which I could get for them to take as it was odourless, was in liquid form, drops for babies which I bought from the local clinic. This I dropped on their food but as most of it disappeared or was trampled into the ground it proved unsatisfactory and the little creatures developed soft shell and died.
Our collection of tortoises increased and in 1967 four tortoises, Eeny, Meeny, Miny and Mo hatched from a clutch of seven eggs. These were the offspring of my original female who has produced hundreds of eggs over the past 27 years. From the start, these little tortoises appeared stronger and more lively. The rearing was still very much a case of trial and error but by now, as my sons were older, I had more time to devote to the young tortoises. It was still difficult to find anyone to give help or advice. So novel was the sight of tiny tortoises that the Editor of our local newspaper sent a photographer to take pictures and a large photograph and article appeared on the front page of the next edition (The Surrey Comet, 28 October 1967). Over the years I have collected similar newspaper cuttings from all parts of the country, all showing newly hatched tortoises, with a caption below saying how rare it is for tortoises to breed in this country. Nowadays it is becoming much more commonplace, so that it attracts far less attention.
Always searching libraries and the shelves marked "Reptiles" in bookshops, I came across the book by Audrey and Ivor Noel-Hume, "Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles" published in 1954 and priced 6/-. As anyone who has read it \will know, it contains plenty of useful information and this book certainly helped me a great deal in those early days.
At the age of three years, with weighs at 340g, 397g, 425g, and 5IOg respectively, I gave the hatchlings their first hibernation. Sadly five months proved too long for Meeny, and in March I found him dead in his box but the other three survived. The next to die was Mo who was then aged five years and \with no warning: she just died in the middle of the summer showing no weight loss or any other signs of poor health.
Now, in 1987 Eeny and Miny have reached the ripe old age of 20 years and have hibernated for six months every winter for the past fifteen years.
Second generation captive-bred tortoise
In 1982 Eeny and Miny (males) were mated with Trixie a captive-bred female aged 20 years, and one or both fathered the first true second generation captive-bred baby tortoise called Alpha. Unfortunately "Alpha" only lived for one year.
By today's standards the first generation are both a poor shape having a bumpy carapace and a thick nuchal plate but both are strong and lively and will chase any and every female in the garden! Their weights have only increased by 60-80g over the past I 10 years. Looking back over my records for the last 15 years, although old imported females have increased in weight by as much as 142 g males only increase by as little as 30-50g.
All my tortoises have the freedom of the whole garden grazing on clover, demolishing aubretia, alyssum and any other plants which take their fancy. They are fed the usual soft fruits, salads and green vegetables as well as quantities of dandelions. They will sometimes take brown bread, crushed eggshells and cuttlefish but I do not give them tinned cat or dog food.
My original female, a large T. graeca weighing 2154g will always choose the same place to dig her nest and lay, and should that place be fenced off, she becomes very agitated. Another old female (obtained circa 1945) uses one particular flowerbed but varies the actual position of egg-laying each year. Since 1967 many more eggs have hatched and I have a male aged 14 years, a female aged 10 years and others much younger. Young tortoises of my own breeding are also being reared by various friends in the British Chelonia Group.
Unfortunately the list of deaths is a long and depressing one - T. graeca hatchlings still appear to be the hardest to rear. Now that more people are breeding T. hermanniand T. marginata the survival rate of these two species is shown to be higher than T. graeca.
With several good informative books which have been published over the past few years and groups such as the British Chelonia Group, British Herpetological Society and Association for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibia and more knowledgeable and interested young vets practising, much of the ignorance of the early days of tortoise keeping is hopefully being overcome.
So, to the question posed at the symposium - "The next 20 years - the problems that remain and the future developments". I hope that there will always be people, many people, who will be willing to carry on our work. to study tortoises, try to breed from their own collections and always striving to learn more about these strange but fascinating creatures.
Evans, P.. 1983: Two Generafions of Captive-bred Testudo graeca British Herpetological Society Bulletin 8, 37.
Testudo Volume Two Number Five 1987