Readers of a certain age will remember how common tortoises were as pets in the 60s and 70s, when they were often imported from warmer climes in terrible conditions, packed on top of each other in wooden crates, with many dying along the way from cracked shells or lack of water.
Welfare concerns led to a 1984 European Union ban on the commercial import of tortoises causing an immediate decline in the legal trade.
It is now illegal in the UK to import or sell wild-caught tortoises and breeders can sell only captive animals bred from parental stock in their care.
But as tortoise numbers have declined, their selling price has increased in line with their rarity, and this has contributed to an increase in their illegal trade.
Before 1983, Mediterranean tortoises sold for about £10 each – now they can change hands illegally for several hundred pounds.
Wild-caught tortoises do not make suitable pets and nine out of 10 die within four years because their owners are unable to provide the environmental conditions they need to survive.
We have had several enquiries recently from people who want to acquire a tortoise, and we do our best to dissuade them.
If you are tempted to buy a tortoise over the internet, then be prepared to spend large sums on veterinary fees.
Tortoises are often very slow to exhibit signs of illness (which makes the time-based refund offered by commercial sellers of little worth), and it is not easy to judge the health of a tortoise from initial observations.
Conversely, a well-cared for tortoise can live for up to 100 years and outlive you – and so this is also a consideration.
Arg Beiyn vets employ two ‘exotics specialists’ who can give advice and support on how to keep a tortoise happy and healthy.
They are also able to microchip tortoises, which is very useful when it comes to reuniting a stray tortoise with its owner.
It’s also a legal requirement should you wish to sell a tortoise or breed from it.
Most breeds of tortoise need to be licensed, and so please do your homework if you are planning to buy one (and make sure you do it legally).
Given their rarity, it was quite an occasion when a member of the public brought in a tortoise (not microchipped) last week, saying they had found him on the disused railway line in Kirk Michael.
We identified him as a Hermann (proper name: Eastern Hermann’s tortoise) which is one of several species kept in captivity in the UK and the Isle of Man.
It is important to know the species of a tortoise, not least because some hibernate and some don’t.
The Hermann does hibernate.
This means that for several months during the winter it will reduce its metabolic activity so that it can cope with colder temperatures – it will appear to sleep and its brain will become inactive.
Other than allowing the tortoise to cope with the cold, hibernation is also good for their health – it allows for the shell to grow in proportion to the body, and extends the tortoise’s lifespan.
Going back to our Kirk Michael tortoise, we did what we always do with stray animals and placed him on our social media pages in the hope that his owner would come forward.
And that’s exactly what happened – after a few days the tortoise was reunited with his, very relieved, owners.
They advised us that he had escaped from their garden last August and so had been missing for almost a year.
He hadn’t wandered far, though, and he had clearly survived hibernation in the wild – he must have dug a hole under leaves and soil to protect himself from the frost and snow.
He is in remarkably good health, and his natural instincts must have guided him on what to avoid eating (plants such as ivy, holly and buttercups) and what to fill up on (dandelion leaves, clover and honeysuckle, for example).
A lucky tortoise indeed!