Horsfield Tortoise Care
The Horsfield – also known as the Russian or Steppe – tortoise is often recommended for outdoor life in the UK, as the environments where they are found in the wild tend to be incredibly harsh, with extremes of both heat and cold. Not only do they favour the type of dry, rocky terrain that the very similar Mediterranean species enjoy, but they can also be found at high altitudes of 4000 to 5000 feet, often near streams and small areas of grassland. They are often considered to be the same as Mediterranean species, although they come from a landscape that is much more harsh.
Whilst this makes them extremely tough, it also means that they are specialists in surviving harsh conditions and are very prone to overeating and other disorders of excess. They cannot tolerate wet weather, high humidities, damp substrates or overly rich food.
Horsfields are a smaller species, with a carapace length not usually exceeding 18 to 20cm, with the females being rather larger than the males. When in good health their shell should be smooth, fairly flat and almost spherical in appearance; their colours vary between quite bright yellows and olive greens to darker tans and browns with brown to black markings. Another common name for them is the four clawed tortoise, as unlike Mediterranean species they only have four claws on each foot. The compressed shape makes it possible for these powerful little tortoises to construct long burrows in which to escape the harsh climate that they evolved in.
In the wild, these tortoises are only active for an incredibly short length of time, often less than three months a year! Summers are very hot and dry, which causes them to escape from the heat via a process called estivation, and winters are very cold and dry, which pushes them into a long hibernation. Most captive Horsfield tortoises are overweight, with deformed shells and frequently overgrown beaks. They require space to exercise – indoors and out – a low calorie, high mineral, low protein diet and high levels of UVB.
Indoor housing should consist of an open topped enclosure – known as a tortoise table – which should be a minimum of 90cm x 60cm floor space for a hatchling tortoise, with sides high enough that the tortoise cannot climb out when the table has had the substrate added. Vivariums should NEVER be used for arid habitat tortoises that need a strong temperature gradient, such as Horsfield and Mediterranean tortoises. A soil based substrate that is as deep as the tortoise is long should be allowed, to allow for natural burrowing behaviours and to assist with humidity and temperature regulation; your tortoise will burrow to escape cold and heat, so be very sure that you have the correct temperature gradient within your enclosure.
Your tortoise should have a varied diet of a wide range of broad leaved weeds such as dandelion, hawkbits, sow thistle, plantain, clovers, bittercress, bindweeds, shepherds purse, chickweed, hedge mustard, white and red deadnettle, mallows, sedums and vetches. Always avoid salad grown for people and never, ever give them fruit! Just like us, tortoises in general and Horsfields in particular love foods that are bad for them, so you have to be very careful to feed only a suitable diet.
As Horsfield tortoises are very active they should have access to a large outdoor enclosure of at least 4 metres (13’) x 6 metres (19’), with an indoor enclosure of 2 metres (6’) x 3 metres (10’). Any smaller than this can cause frustration to your tortoise which will result in stressed, irritable behaviours such as constantly clawing at the walls and pacing around the inside of their table. Outdoor enclosures will need a layer of wire mesh buried at least 20cm below ground, as Horsfield tortoises are incredibly accomplished burrowers. Be aware that they are also very able climbers, and there will need to be an overhang along the top of any enclosure to prevent them climbing out. Never underestimate the stubbornness of a tortoise, and assume that they WILL try to escape!
Even the best artificial lighting will struggle to replicate the high UVI readings in their native habitats, so it’s vitally important to apply calcium or multivitamin/multimineral to every feed. You should also provide either cuttlefish or soft chalk blocks for the tortoise to nibble on, which will help to keep their beaks trim.
Hibernation can be a rather tricky process the first time, but you should absolutely persevere and hibernate your Horsfield as soon as it is large enough to do so. Follow the guides for Mediterranean tortoises, use a fridge and keep plenty of records and your tortoise will live longer and be a much healthier animal overall.
If you have a male Horsfield, be aware that when they hit sexual maturity they can be rather single minded. If they live with another tortoise you must separate them, as he will court them furiously (regardless of sex or even species) until he exhausts himself or he has stressed the other tortoise to the point where they become ill. Horsfield courtship involves lots of biting, so watch your toes – that beak is powerful and sharp!
Horsfield tortoises are outgoing, nosy, cheerful little souls with big personalities, and if you are prepared to meet their very precise needs they will give you many years of companionship and an awful lot of laughter. A wonderful species, but can be a rather difficult pet to keep properly.