I have recently taken on a four-year-old tortoise from a friend who didn't want it any more. I'm getting to grips with him but am confused about when or whether he needs to go into hibernation. Help!
Tobi Leopold, Hayling Island
It's very noble of you to take on a tortoise like that, but you really need to know what you are doing. Tortoises are not pets for beginners; they need specialist care and attention. But there are a lot of them out there: a recent survey revealed that an estimated eight million reptiles and amphibians are kept as pets in the UK. The first thing you must do is find a vet who specialises in reptiles who can tell you if your tortoise is one of the types that hibernates – because some Mediterranean species don't. Preparations for hibernation usually start in October, when the nights are growing darker and it's getting colder, but that's obviously not possible in your case. (Note that underweight or sick animals should never be put into hibernation.) So you will need to "overwinter" your tortoise during the cold months, which means keeping it awake and fed throughout. The tortoise needs an enclosure: an open, wooden enclosure filled with a mixture of sand and soil 50-75mm deep is ideal. Heat and light are essential to tortoises' well-being, so lamps need to be placed 30-45cm above your tortoise's basking position and left on for about 14 hours a day. Clip-on lights are ideal for this, but make sure you get a specialist lamp; ordinary domestic ones are not suitable, and over-heating is as great a danger as under-heating. There must be enough room for the tortoise to get away from the lamp, but not so much space that he could get cold; a covered area within the enclosure gives him somewhere to take shelter and to regulate his temperature. Here is the name of a good website to assist you: tortoisetrust.org. Good luck!
Remember that if an animal shows signs of distress or discomfort an early visit to the vet is always recommended