by John Thompson
On a recent family summer holiday in Acharavi in northern Corfu we took great delight in observing wild Testudo hermanni in their natural environment. We enjoy walking and looking up to the hills from Acharavi town. It wasnít long before we discovered tracks leading off the main street up to the hill farms and olive groves, olives being the second largest industry in Corfu after tourism.
Much of the land on the hillsides is devoted to the growing of olives by many generations and some of the trees are extremely old. The best of the flora and fauna however is found by the tracts of land sandwiched between two larger areas of primary forest. Here one can find mature Mediterranean oaks and a variety of plant life not dissimilar to a primary forest in Britain.
I stumbled over the first tortoise quite by accident as I was trying to get a closer look at some large emerald green beetles flying high up in a fig tree feeding on the ripe fruit. On looking down to examine the thistle thorns that had irritated my leg I saw within inches of my left foot a beautifully camouflaged juvenile tortoise about the size of a fig. Thankful that I had not trodden on it I counted two distinct growth rings on its shell and after identifying it as Testudo hermanni put it back and made a careful retreat.
After that first exciting find we deliberately set off in search of tortoises. It wasnít easy, and we found the best way was to stop and listen in likely territory.
The next encounter came about from hearing the high-pitched squeaks of a mating male in thick undergrowth. Sure enough on further investigation, and further irritation to the legs from the thick brambles, there was a large female being embraced by a passionate male half her size. Unlike the clear markings of the young juvenile these two had hardly any markings at all, no visible growth rings and their light-coloured shells were pitted and cracked, giving a first impression of great age. On closer inspection my guess is that they had been fire-damaged and further clues to this theory were a number of blackened dead trees in the vicinity which had obviously been the victims of a fire some years earlier. On the positive side these two tortoises appeared otherwise in good health and able to breed new generations.
For the duration of the two-week holiday we went out tortoise hunting on a daily basis but it was only when we discovered an area that we aptly named 'Tortoise Wood' that we could guarantee success in finding our quarry. Tortoise Wood is a two-acre patch of typical primary Mediterranean forest with a floor of grasses, brambles and dry leaves. Sitting quietly here in the broken shade of this wood was a wonderful experience, away from the hurly burly activities of the tourists. There was lots to see: lizards, butterflies, birds, the occasional snake, a wide variety of insects (my favourite being the large emerald green beetles) and of course - the tortoises.
Against the background chorus of whirring cicadas and bird song we became experts at distinguishing between the distant breeze-blown rustle of dead leaves and that of a tortoise on the move. Once the general direction was identified, creeping quietly closer would usually result in a visual fix of moving vegetation and finally the tortoise itself. I became obsessed and spend many hours in Tortoise Wood.
Within this area alone during our holiday we found five males and two females and I frequently found the same tortoises on different days, but it was always just as exciting. On one thrilling occasion in the wood I was awoken from a hot mid-day siesta by what sounded like a cat-sized animal making a considerable noise by thrashing around in the undergrowth about twenty yards from me. A visual contact proved me wrong. There were three tortoises together, two males frantically pursuing a female about twice their size and judging by her efforts to escape she wasnít interested. These specimens were a picture of health and undamaged by fire.
I suspect we found more males than females because they are distinctly more active in defending a territory or seeking out a mate; neither did we find another juvenile and I think we were lucky to have seen what we did. If a tortoise isnít on the move or making some kind of noise itís incredibly hard to find.
Now weíre back home in England the memories of watching these fascinating creatures in the wild will keep me going for the winter months until the next trip. My own two tortoises are safely hibernating in the garage in their special boxes and in spite of the poor summer they had put on more than the average amount of weight.
My advice to anyone intending to embark on a similar experience is to use insect repellant to discourage hungry horseflies and wear good walking shoes and long trousers to protect the legs from brambles, burrs and thistles. I was scratching prickles from my legs weeks after this unforgettable holiday but it was well worth it!