Back garden oasis: the tortoise sanctuary in the suburbs

The International Tortoise Association has nearly five hundred tortoises, so how did a suburban house turn into a paradise for reptiles?

On an unassuming road in a small village in South Wales there is a perfectly normal looking house. But, taking a closer look you may notice an unusual side door affixed with a yellow sign depicting a tortoise warning of ‘slow traffic’. Creaking the door open and walking down the narrow passage you are greeted with a vast garden overflowing with enclosures of all shapes and sizes. Each one holds a different species of tortoise originating from across the globe.

The International Tortoise Association in Sully has nearly five hundred residents peacefully basking in their back garden. Established 40 years ago, volunteers Celia Claypole and Martyn Lewis now maintain this paradise for their beloved reptiles.

The sanctuary has 33 pens to house the many different species of tortoise they have.

Celia is a certified tortoise enthusiast whose mission is to educate, “All tortoises are endangered, all of them. Some need a licence called an Article 10 to be able to buy, sell or do anything really. But others don’t require a licence and this means people go to pet shops, they usually purchase Horsefield tortoises as they are the most abundant at the moment. Pet shops pick them up for two a penny and sell them on. They are not bothered if anything bad happens to the tortoise so we end up with them eventually and usually in a bad way because owners just can’t cope with the intensive care required,” she says.

The best part of the job is saving tortoises.

Celia Claypole

Celia has been overseeing the sanctuary since 1999 as founders Ann and Jack Ovenstone took a step back in managing the site. The rescue is a registered charity and invites public support through volunteering and donations. Martyn looks after the day to day aspects of the place, “a typical day means coming in and walking around to make sure all the tortoises are moving, doing a head count and making sure the new recruits are settling in. Then I check the youngsters and then they are fed and cleaned every day. Including the babies we have around 450 tortoises here permanently,” he says.

Young tortoises are very fragile so the sanctuary keeps them in heated pens indoors until they are older enough to move to the outdoor areas.

With nearly 500 tortoises the sanctuary holds an interesting variety of species, “there are over 250 different tortoises types out there. We’ve got about eleven different species. We have Hermanns, Spur-Thighed, Sulcatas, Marginated, Horsefields, Leopards, Red-Foots, Yellow-Foots, Box Turtles, Amboina Box Turtles and Indian Stars. They come from all the world and have found a home in a small village in Wales,” Celia says.

Tortoises naturally hibernate throughout the colder winter months in order to survive so people from all over the UK bring their tortoises to the rescue so they can be correctly hibernated, Martyn says, “we had 850 tortoises this year and it’s increasing every year due to the warming weather, because people used to hibernate themselves when it was colder but now the climate in January can be boiling so tortoises wake up early which is dangerous. We have three huge purpose built coolers to keep the tortoises between five and eight degrees from October to March.”

Whilst speaking we are suddenly interrupted by a tortoise in need. Celia and Martyn have noticed a tortoise is suffering with insect eggs on the skin. They waste no time in filling a small tray with warm water and gently placing the tortoise in to remove the eggs. Celia says, “The best part of the job is saving tortoises … I got into this because I had a tortoise that wasn’t very well and I didn’t even realise there was a problem with him. I brought the tortoise to Ann and Jack who helped me through the issue. The tortoise is still here today and doing beautifully.”

A tortoise is given an emergency bath to remove a fly egg infestation on their leg.

Ann and Jack are the original founders who created the sanctuary, Celia says, “Ann had tortoises as a child and started attending a Chelonian club where members come together to exchange advice on the care of tortoises, terrapins and turtles. When it collapsed nobody knew how to take care of tortoises back then as this was nearly 40 years ago. She and Jack essentially became the place people went for help and information. Then it just escalated from there into what it is today.”

Since opening the sanctuary has accumulated some impressive residents over the years. Matilda is the oldest tortoise at the rescue and one of the oldest tortoises in Britain, “I have been saying she’s 150 years old for the last three years. She came to us many years ago from an elderly lady who was worried she was going to pass away and the tortoise would be forgotten about in the garden. When she came to use she actually showed us the receipt of when Matilda was bought. She was actually purchased in 1870 in Canton in Cardiff,” Celia explains.

Matilda is a Mediterranean Spur-Thighed tortoise and she has seen the reign of six monarchs, two world wars and the turn of the millennium during her lifetime.

Another species living at the rescue are the African Spur-Thighed tortoises who come from the Sahara desert. These gentle giants are the largest mainland tortoises in the world and often subject to the illegal tortoise trade, “People buy them in pet shops because they are advertised as regular Spur-Thighed. But they are actually giant Spurs. So pet shops sell them on and don’t explain to customers that they’re tropical. They then grow at a quite alarming rate which people can’t deal with,” Martyn says.

The largest inhabitant at the sanctuary is an African Spur -Thighed, also known as a Sulcata tortoise, named Flloyd who is only 15 years old and already weighs six stone. Martyn explains that he will eventually reach 18 stone so is definitely not a tortoise that can be kept in a regular back garden. The sanctuary took him when a zoo in Scotland could no longer house them.

Celia feeds Floyd, one of the largest residents at the sanctuary, a mixture of kale and lettuce.

The International Tortoise Rescue receives tortoises from all of the UK when members of the public can no longer provide adequate care or other zoos simply don’t have the room. This means they have taken in tortoises that are in awful states, “ We’ve had a tortoise that was cruelly thrown on a bonfire so we aptly named her Bonnie. We cared for her until she passed away a few years ago. We’ve had tortoises that have been shot with pellets, bitten by rats and a variety of horrible things,” Martyn says.

Celia stresses the importance of correct tortoise care as they receive many tortoises suffering from illness, “ We’ve had some in really bad condition where the shell is so soft you cannot even pick the tortoise up because your fingers would go right through. This is due to no calcium left in the body at all. It’s so painful it is truly heartbreaking. Some people just don’t know how to correctly care for them,” she says.

A pen with sheltered areas where the tortoises sleep at night so they can exhibit natural behaviour.

Tortoises need specialised care, “Tortoises cannot thrive without heat. They need that heat, but they also need UVB D3 which is natural sunlight. Natural sunlight is the best thing in the world, so people need to remember to keep them outside as long as they can whilst it’s warm enough. That’s the best thing for them,” Celia says.

This specialised care is now a legal requirement in the UK, Celia says “This is the law we follow. This is what we try and make everybody understand. Tortoises must have a suitable environment, eat a suitable diet and be able to perform their natural behaviours, and that’s why we keep our garden like we do. It’s not like a bowling green out there. We keep it rough. It has to be. There’s grass and weeds out which is what you’d find in their natural habitat.”

Although the sanctuary have managed to make to create a tortoise paradise in their back garden they advise that people think twice before getting a tortoise, Martyn says, “ Keeping a tortoise is a lot more work than people think, they think they can just put a tortoise in their garden and leave them there. That’s not how it works … if a 10 year old buys their first tortoise, that tortoise will likely outlive them, they are truly for life.”

If you’d like to make a donation or volunteer, please visit the sanctuary here:

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