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 Keeping Geochelone carbonaria out doors in the Netherlands; fact or fiction?


By J. Bruekers



To be straight forward; our climate conditions here in the Netherlands and also in other western, middle and northern parts of Europe are not suitable for the out door husbandry of tropical tortoises. So in most cases the answer to the question will be: “it is fiction!’.

Nevertheless, in this preliminary article I will try to explain that it is not completely impossible to keep tropical species out doors.

At present many tortoise keepers have tropical species in their collection. One of the favourite tropical species is the South American red footed tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria). This tortoise inhabits mostly the warm and humid tropical areas.  But does this mean that out door enclosures in a temperate climate are out of the question? Based on the experiences I have made with this species over the last 10 years, I tend to say: no!

Although, I must immediately add that one has to follow some basic rules to prevent fatal errors which could harm the tortoises! In this article I describe how it worked for me and why I think this combination of in door and out door husbandry is beneficial for these beautiful tropical reptiles.

Temporary climate

In the botanical world the different climatic areas are often classified in so called “USDA zones”. The United States Department of Agriculture has translated the various climate conditions in 10 zones which reflect the average minimum temperature. Fact is that this zone classification is not a very accurate rating. It is common knowledge that some local areas are much milder than the rest in a particular county due to the presents of large water bodies, mountain ridges, forests or even large buildings and walls. Nevertheless, the USDA zone ratings are useful to indicate in what climate area you live.

The part of The Netherlands where I live is a zone 7. So a temperate climate with cool, wet winters (-15C) and moderate summer temperatures.  In comparison; southern France is zone 9, as is Cornwall in Britain.

This classification “zone 7“, in my opinion, means that only the warmer seasons (April until September) are suitable for a temporary husbandry of tropical tortoises in facilities with a greenhouse and an out door pen.

To create a suitable enclosure one should respect some basic rules:

  • generally dry conditions
  • warmth and protection (shelter) from cold winds and rain.

Greenhouse and out door pen

I have a south facing garden which has stone walls all around. This makes the garden a “warm spot” in the middle of a zone 7 area with an ideal micro climate. In a particular protected corner of the garden I build a greenhouse which is used as a tortoise enclosure for the large tropical species. At the front of the greenhouse I made a small opening which leads to the outdoor pen. This pen has a wooden fence.

This sheltered area blocks off cold winds which sometimes sweep in from the East or North.

In this pen I planted a South American semi hardy palm tree (Butia capitata), yucca and large grass bushes. The elegant Butia palm also profits from this “hot spot” in the garden and stays out doors even during wintertime (with protection). These tropical plants give the outdoor vivarium a nice tropical look.

Early in the morning during Spring, Summer or Autumn only a little sunshine is needed to raise the local temperatures.

It may sound bizarre, but during warm weather in summer the palm and the fence provide  some shade which is needed to prevent over heating of the animals. During these warm days tortoises spend a lot of time resting on these partially shaded spots and absorb the remaining sunlight and warmth. In my opinion this direct sunlight and the fresh air has a direct positive effect on the well being for the tortoises. They are alert and enjoy walking around looking for something to eat.

Depending on the weather, the  Redfoots are relocated from the indoor vivarium to the greenhouse as early as April. They normally stay there until September.

We all know that the weather in Europe can turn in no time. Cool, rainy days are not uncommon. On these particular unfriendly days, the tortoises stay in the greenhouse. Here they find layer of leaf litter on the floor and there is heating mat and a 100 Watt lamp which provides the warmth needed; especially during the night. The tortoises have learned  to stay indoors when it is cool (under 13C). In the past I regularly noticed that a carbonaria looked through the opening and checked the out door conditions. Because it was cloudy and cool he turned, stayed in doors and preferred the warm spot under the lamp!  From there they observe what is going on in the garden.

Despite this habit to stay in the greenhouse when the weather is less favourable, I always check were the animals are in the evening because they could misjudge the circumstances.

I make sure that they are in the greenhouse.  Sometimes, during Spring and in August/ September I use old blankets to cover the tortoises during really cool nights.

The most important precaution for this kind of husbandry is to create a dry indoor enclosure (greenhouse) and install a basking area (heating mats and spots). It is common knowledge that Geochelone carbonaria lives in a warm damp to moist environment. Nevertheless, my animals thrive under these dryer greenhouse conditions.

The tortoises are checked daily; their eyes should look bright and wet; the mouth and noses should be dry; they all must eat well and at last but not least, I even check the produced droppings. All these parameters are good indications in respect to the condition of the animals.

Warning! Think before you act!

I am fully aware of the fact that the contents of this article may trigger a discussion about “what is good; what is tolerable and what is bad”. I also emphasize not to copy my suggestions immediately!

You must realise that I began my “search” for the best combination in respect to the out door and in door husbandry for this and other tropical species step by step. And what is most important, this “search” was done without any losses of animals.

This last fact and the fact that friends of mine have had the same positive experiences encouraged me to present this unorthodox way of husbandry of tortoises for a broader audience.

Tropical tortoises are not normal and ideal animals to keep in a Dutch or English garden without a lot of planning in advance. It is vitally important that you “know” your garden and climate conditions (the cold parts and the “hot spots”). You also should be accustomed with the specific behaviour of your delicate tortoises (are they active, shy, secretive animals?).

Do not take unnecessary risks!

In my view the following animals are not suitable for your oudoor project:

  • newly acquired animals (you not know their habits and their physical condition)
  • sick or weak animals
  • young or semi adult animals.

So the slogan must be: think before you act!


 “Is this method of husbandry strictly in accordance with all of the environmental requirements of Geochelone carbonaria which come from a moist, hot, South American forest or savannah?”

No, it probably is not.  But I do know that my animals are healthy, active and enjoy the sun (light and warmth) during their stay in the greenhouse and the outdoor pen; even here in the Netherlands. In 2000 a G. carbonaria even laid their eggs in the outdoor terrarium. It is also fun to see big tortoises strolling around, high on their feet and their necks fully stretched.

Whatever you do; always keep in mind the welfare of your animals, check and double check!

Jaco Bruekers