Look out! Abandoned terrapins about

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Discarded pet turtles are turning up in urban ponds across the country – with devastating consequences for indigenous wildlife

A A A

Normally, it begins with the unexplained absence of frogspawn. Then comes the slow but steady disappearance of dragonfly larvae, fish and ducklings. In extreme cases, there are vicious attacks on small dogs.

Around Britain, the placid calm of urban ponds and watercourses is being disturbed by a rapacious new menace – legions of abandoned pet terrapins.

Conservationists have issued a warning that hundreds of boating lakes, canals and waterways in towns and cities are infested with terrapins and small turtles which were bought as pets while brightly-coloured babies barely bigger than a 50p coin but dumped by owners unable to cope as they grew to mature carnivorous adults the size of a dinner plate.

The trend began in the early 1990s when thousands of red-eared terrapins, each capable of living up to 30 years, were bought by young fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon. But ecologists have warned of a more recent second wave of releases which is seeing additional species, including the aggressive snapping turtle, dumped in the wild.

Although native to warmer climes such as America's Mississippi valley, the terrapins and turtles readily take up residence in Britain's parks and wetlands where they have a ready food supply, including young waterfowl.

Experts have seen examples of ponds stripped of wildlife by a population of just two or three terrapins.

Such is the scale of the problem that 51 terrapins and turtles, from five different species, were recently removed from a single pond in a north London park after the local authority called in a specialist trapper. Two years ago, a colony of 150 of the creatures was removed from the 25 ponds on Hampstead Heath and re-homed at a sanctuary in Tuscany.

The result is a double headache for conservation groups as they try to control the problem by trapping and removing the unwanted invaders but struggle to find new homes for the captives because of their longevity (some species can live for up to 50 years) and the costs of running a dedicated aquarium. One sanctuary receives unwanted animal at a rate of six a week.

John Baker, of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) Trust, said: "When these animals are bought as babies they seem attractive pets. But they grow to a significant size and people think it is OK to take them to their nearest body of water and release them into places where they prey on native species and can spread disease.

"The additional problem is what to do with them once we find them. The law says they cannot be returned to the water and sanctuaries are often reluctant to take them. Caring for a terrapin is a major undertaking – they live for decades and we don't want to see them put down. People really need to be more responsible about buying them in the first place."

As committed scavengers without natural predators in Britain, terrapins and turtles find themselves at the top of the food chain in urban ponds and watercourses, chomping their way through a menu of native species that includes newts, fish, toads, frogspawn, larvae and, for the largest and most aggressive specimens, the occasional duckling or juvenile moorhen and coot.

Of particular concern is the common snapping turtle, a powerful American species, which has a vicious bite and is known for its aggression. One of the creatures was captured in the trawl of Clissold Park in Stoke Newington, which netted 51 critters, while another was suspected of carrying out attacks on several dogs and a Canada goose in east London.

Rebecca Turpin, London officer for the ARC Trust, said: "We should not underestimate the impact that these animals can have. They can decimate a pond. I personally know of several where there is no wildlife left because of a few resident terrapins.

"They can go through the native species pretty quickly if the conditions are correct."

The influx of red-eared terrapins to Britain in the early 1990s was halted by legislation banning imports of the species, but it has been replaced in the pet trade by a number of new types, including the yellow-belly slider, the Cumberland, the diamondback and the European pond turtle. Individual specimens can be bought for as little as £10.

Experts have consoled themselves with the fact that Britain's climate means that although the terrapins and turtles can survive, they are unable to breed because cooling temperatures in the autumn do not leave fertilised eggs enough time to hatch.

But the evidence in recent years is that a small numbers of juveniles has survived and prospered, raising the prospect of an established population across the British Isles.

Wayne Rampling, a terrapin expert who runs a trapping service and sanctuary in Essex, carried out the week-long operation to clear the pond at Clissold Park. He said: "In many ways they are beautiful creatures. But they are in the wrong places and they are extremely adaptable. In London we found several babies which suggest very strongly that they are beginning to breed. When you add to that the fact that every female can have three sets of five-to-35 eggs, the implications are obvious."











Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy