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Winter Feeding - A Practical Guide - Revised

Updated: Mar 18

The question of what to feed in winter if for some reason it is necessary to keep Mediterannean tortoises active for health reasons, rather than brumating/hibernating them is a problem that perplexes many keepers. Originally developed and tested over many years at our facility in Wales, UK, when we operated a very large rescue centre, this flexible and easy diet worked extremely well. We have now updated it in the light of further knowledge and experience. We hope that you find it useful.

Testudo graeca with the winter diet and additional calcium supplement.

Obviously, the fewer tortoises you have to feed the easier it gets. If you have quite a large number awake (as we often have had at various times) then making up the required bulk can be a bit of a challenge, but with some careful planning in spring and summer, a healthy diet can still be achieved, even in the depths of winter.

Green leaf material

For smaller toroises, our approach is to start with some of the more interesting bagged salad mixes available at your local supermarket or greengrocer, for example, herb salads, wild rocket salads, baby leaf salads, and Mediterranean salads. These typically comprise a fairly good range of green and red-leaf salad ingredients and make up a good general base. The typical ingredients include escarole, radicchio, tatsoi, rocket, endive (chicory), lambs lettuce, red chard, mizuna, coriander, apollo lettuce, lollo rosso, lollo verde, baby red oak lettuce, green batavia lettuce, baby lollo biondi, tango lettuce and romaine etc. While feeding just a couple of these ingredients regularly might be problematic, feeding the individually very small proportions in a wider mixture balances things out and has proved very effective.

Some keepers also report very good results using a higher percentage of Romaine lettuce as the moist base, and then adding various dried high fibre 'cobs' (as below). We have not personally tested this, but we have seen the results and they appear to be positive.

Although plants of the brassica family appear on many 'no feed' lists, the reality is that many tortoises in the wild frequently eat such plants. Obviously the cultivated varieties purchased in stores are not exactly the same as the wild members of this family eaten by species such as Testudo horsfieldii in their native habitat, but in nutritional terms they are very similar, Our view has always been that if used in strict moderation and as a minor part of a wide-ranging healthy diet there is no reason why they have to be excluded entirely, as they do have quite a few beneficial properties of their own. Kale, for example, is very high in both iron and fibre, and is also very good from a calcium perspective. The outer leaves from some cabbages are also high in fibre and can add some variety. These are not items that you would necessarily want to include with every feed - but they do have some important benefits (rich in vitamin-C and vitamin-K) and used sparingly, we have never observed any negative effects. Despite the impression given by some 'feeding lists', a small amount here and there will not harm your tortoises!

The key to using all of these items successfully is to constantly rotate and mix them, and to supplement them with extra high fibre items. Do not rely for extended periods upon one type alone. Variety is extremely important.

Avoid all mixes containing root vegetables (carrot, beetroot, etc.) or fruits (bell peppers, tomato, etc.) as these are not in any way suitable for Mediterranean tortoises.

This general green, leafy base can then be supplemented with a surprising range of interesting and highly nutritious ingredients that you can grow for yourself or forage, either in a mini-greenhouse or indoors, and use as available from what you can still find outdoors. Some of our favourites include:

  • Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)

  • Hibiscus flowers and leaves

  • Petunia flowers

  • Rose petals

  • Nasturtium flowers and leaves

  • Violet flowers

  • Pansy flowers

  • Gazania flowers and leaves

  • Bellis daisy flowers

  • Osteospermum flowers

  • Honeysuckle flowers

  • Chrysanthemum flowers

  • Petunia

  • Buddleia leaves and flowers

  • Pineapple sage flowers

  • Rose geranium flowers

  • Cornflowers

  • Campanula flowers

  • Dandelion leaves and flowers

  • Carnation flowers

  • Fuschia flowers

  • Snapdragon flowers

Many of these will grow even in winter in sheltered spots, in greenhouses, or in pots or trays in the house. Again, the key is small amounts and a very wide variety. Even in our our garden in Wales in December, calendula, fuschia, osteospermum, petunia, roses and several others on this list were still in flower. In other spots, there were still some dandelion, buddleia leaves clover and sow-thistle to be harvested. Even after a hard frost and snows it doesn’t take long before some of the hardy flowering weeds begin to reappear.

The usual spring and summer outdoor pens will often have a variety of edible weeds and flowers available (though at reduced levels) even in winter in many locations and these can be 'foraged' to provide fresh food all year round. Planting such pens with edible wild-flower mixes in Spring greatly helps with diversity.

For additional fibre, there are several options. One is to add edible meadow hay mixes as sold for small mammal feed to the fresh component, another is to use the 'Agrobs' Fibre cobs. These can be provided both dry and lightly soaked. We strongly suggest avoiding all 'pellet' foods that include extensive lists of additives, probiotics, cereal derivatives, mollases, yeasts or or other strange ingredients. They are not necessary and can be harmful. Keep it simple. Keep it safe.

The better 'pellets' or 'cobs' will have a very visible high fibre content. Cheaper, highly processed types will look quite different, and appear 'smoother' and more compressed, with a far lower long-fibre content.

The high coarse fibre content is very obvious here.

You can now also source dried edible 'weeds and herbs' quite easily online from places such as Ebay. We have tested several examples and found them to be useful. As always, do your research and if in doubt, ask for advice on our Facebook Group, for example that has many thousands of keepers, some highly experienced, from all over the world.

In addition, using a home dehydrator, you could pick your own throughout the summer, dry, and then add to the moister food base over winter.

Dried mixed edible wild flower and meadow herbs.

Wild 'weeds' drying in a home dehydrator unit.

It is absolutely critical that you do not buy flowers for winter feeding from garden centres or florists and feed immediately as these will almost certainly have been treated with highly toxic pesticides. Once washed off well, and grown on a bit however, new growth can be safely harvested from garden centre plants. Flowers from florists (or supermarkets) tend to have much heavier concentrations of toxic pesticides and we would recommend avoiding these completely.

The only supplement we add to this diet for Mediterranean tortoises is a sprinkling of calcium carbonate twice a week. Along with adequate heat and UV-B this is sufficient to entirely prevent problems such as metabolic bone disease.

Even when feeding fresh, it can help to leave some dry material as this is quite close to what they experience in the wild for much of the year and can further help to increase fibre intake. It is also important to avoid general over-feeding - on anything - as this will also promote excessive rates of growth and increase the dangers of MBD.

This highly varied mixed leafy salad base, with the addition of other wild “weeds”, flowers and added fibre mentioned makes a very satisfactory indoor maintenance diet. We have used variations on this for many years with excellent results, indeed, we have raised hatchlings on it in long term (five year plus) trials. We therefore feel entirely confident in recommending it as safe and effective.

The degree to which calcium or calcium with vitamin D3 supplements are required is quite difficult to assess accurately. We tend to take a fairly relaxed view on this. It also depends upon a number of variables, such as type and quality of UV-B provision. It is, therefore, difficult to generalise. With really good UV-B available, a twice weekly fairly generous sprinkling of pure calcium carbonate worked well for us. For species that do not bask as much, or where the UV-B provision is not as optimal, use of a phosphorus-free calcium supplement with some added D3 might be preferable. There are so many variables involved here that it is something you need to assess in the light of your own circumstances and experience.

Obviously, certain species will be active over winter because they do not naturally brumate (or do so only under conditions difficult to replicate safely in captivity) so for these species the basic 'winter diet' described above can be easily 'customised' and adapted in various ways.

Tropical forest tortoise variation

For tropical forest tortoises only (Redfoots, Yellowfoots, Hingeback tortoises, etc.) that require a diet that includes soft fruit and some low level of animal protein, we simply that the Mediterranean mix, with flowers (as above) and add in some melon (different varieties), grape, kiwi fruit, papaya, guava, mushroom and banana. The supplementation routine is similar, but we also mix in a phosphorus-free calcium supplement that includes oral-D3, as these species do not bask under UV-B to the same extent as semi-arid species, and this helps to ensure that this essential need is adequately met. One day a week a little dry dog or cat food is soaked and added into the mix in addition. These species all tend to require much, much less in the way of coarse fibre than do Mediterranean or savannah habitat tortoises, so we reduce that substantially, though we do provide it as an option separately if a particular tortoise shows an interest in it.

Savannah tortoise variation

We start again with the Mediterranean mix with flowers as a base, and on a daily basis mix in approximately one third by volume ‘Readigrass’ and added 'Agrobs' fibre according to taste. This works extremely well with Leopard tortoises, Indian Star tortoises and African Spurred tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata). It is extremely important that no fruit is given to these species.

All indoor accommodation and indoor diets are a compromise. Nothing beats good outdoor accommodation or the freedom to graze naturally, however, the suggestions above have proved successful and safe over very many years, so when you do need to take this route, it is a good starting place and you can easily adjust to suit what ingredients are available to you and how your tortoises react to it. Let us know how it works for you!

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Is a Hermann tortoise described as a Mediterranean Tortoise

Replying to

Absolutely, yes. It occurs in Spain, France and Italy (T. h. hermanni) and also Greece and other countries around the Med (T. h. b).

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