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Top Tips for Perfect Pens

A. C. Highfield

There is no such thing as a universally ideal pen - each species will have different requirements, some prefer the bright outdoors, others prefer the shade of the rain forest floor…. some species like to climb…. others like to dig and burrow….. there are, however, a few general guidelines we can offer which you can then adapt as necessary. We have kept hundreds of tortoises, of many different species, and in some cases, we have learned what works and what does not work the hard way! Here are some of the 'golden rules' we've picked up down the years.

Fences and walls

  • If a tortoise can see through it, it will try to pass through it. So, ensure that all perimeters are impossible to see through. If there is a hole, no matter how small, most tortoises will convince themselves that if they keep at it, sooner or later they'll succeed in squeezing through it. Opaque fences and perimeters work much better.
  • Square corners just invite attempts to "chimney up" them and escape. It's better to have continuous fencing without such corners. A gently curved or rounded 'corner' is much less likely to serve as an escape route.
  • Fences should be of adequate height and depth. Ideally, all fences should be at least 1.5 to 2 times as high as the tortoise is long. Many species are adept at burrowing and scraping too, so it helps if all fences are dug in to a reasonable depth.
  • NEVER rely on 'temporary' pens!!! These almost always lead to successful escapes! Tortoises are highly resourceful and determined creatures. If there's a way, they'll find it.
  • Beware of toxic substances used as wood preservatives. Use safe alternatives and allow materials to 'weather' before use.
  • Use an appropriate substrate for the species to be housed. Desert species will require a sandy, very well drained substrate, while many tropical species prefer moist leaf-litter, moss and crushed orchid bark.
  • Provide all egg-laying females with suitable raised nesting sites.
  • Try to make all pens interesting and attractive. The old-style wooden pen on a grass lawn is NOT the way to go…. contoured outlines, with plenty of internal space, alternate access to basking spots and shady retreats, and a variety of places to climb are all prerequisites of good pen design.
  • Create an 'island' of interesting vegetation in the middle. This will distract attention from the perimeters and will lessen the frequency of escape attempts.
  • If at all possible, provide slopes in all pens. These greatly facilitate basking, nesting and are much closer to the typical natural habitat of many species.
  • Pens for juveniles MUST be predator proof. Rats and other predatory mammals can and will attack small tortoises - usually with fatal results. Secure tops with wire mesh and ensure that perimeters are free of rodent or other burrows. Check regularly.
  • Provide juvenile pens with low growing vegetation. This provides 'leg holds' in case the tortoises fall on their backs, and helps them to right themselves.
  • Check all pens regularly in hot weather. A tortoise can easily overheat if it gets on its back and is unable to turn itself back over.
  • Install a 'mini-greenhouse' basking area in outdoor pens for use in dull weather. These will provide protection from cold winds and will greatly assist in thermoregulation.
  • Ensure that all pens are free of toxic plants and encourage edible plants (lists are given in The Feeding Manual). All pens need to be of adequate size, generally, the larger the better. We recommend allowing at least 10 sq meters per average sized tortoise inhabitant.
With good design and careful construction, pens can provide an interesting, biologically suitable environment for many species. There is no need for pens to be either insecure, inadequate or boring! A really good pen will provide everything your tortoise needs throughout the summer months, and will prove an attractive addition to any garden.