Tortoise Hatchling Caresheet

Suited to all Mediterranean tortoises in general, ie hermanns, spur thighed and marginated.  There is a separate page for russian/horsfield hatchlings.


It is now generally accepted that a mix of soils is the best substrate for tortoises, which closely resembles their natural terrain. I use bagged topsoil or coir for indoor enclosures, add a few rocks and logs for interest and water it frequently, in the same way you would a plant pot and allow it to dry naturally, but never completely, just the top. Soil which is dried out artificially and then added to the enclosure tends to be very dusty and can irritate the eyes. When allowed to dry out naturally it will form a more solid top and not give the same problems. It is important that no fertilisers or chemicals of any kind are employed as baby tortoises are adventurous and like all babies, apt to taste the most unlikely things, including lumps of substrate, faeces of other animals, stones and other unsuitable objects. Soil has excellent thermoregulation properties when the tortoise buries down overnight. Temperatures, and just as importantly, humidity are maintained surprisingly well.  There is no need for additional bedding such as hay or shredded paper as the tortoise will naturally bury itself into the substrate. Indeed pieces of hay or paper can become entangled around tiny legs or necks. Watering at the edges means that water creeps across the bottom of the substrate, ensuring good hydration qualities throughout, as in wild situations. Never use woodchips, sawdust, corn cobs or compacted paper pellets as these can be dangerous, especially if eaten. Sand is also a bad idea as it can be irritating to eyes and nostrils. The sand in this country is not the same as in the wild which is more powdery and holds together better. Indoor habitats for hatchlings need to be 4ft in length minimum, otherwise the tortoise will pace the edges. Even tiny babies need to explore and will soon become bored and stressed with small areas. 
While outdoors your hatchling will not need uvb light, but a heat source is advisable so that it can warm up in order to build up an appetite and digest its food. I do this for larger tortoises by providing a shed or greenhouse with basking facilities and access via a cat flap. During good weather, I use ceramic heaters as background heat, simply to warm them initially, but not for general heat, which needs to be bright light as in the sun. An hour or so in the morning is plenty to get them going. Once warm they will go outdoors and utilise the sun. It is amazing how quickly they get used to such provisions and put them to good use. For smaller tortoises this can be done on a smaller scale so long as the electricity supply is safe. If in doubt keep the tortoise indoors when there is not sufficient sun for thermoregulation. Using a table top set-up that can be transported outside is far less stressful than continually moving them between two different set-ups. Moving them outdoors in the day and back in at night can be very stressful for them, as they possibly get a warmer ambient temperature overnight than in the day, which is going to lead to confusion. Much better to have a permanent outdoor setup where the tortoise can choose for itself whether it wants to be indoors or out. Heat of course is needed for basking in continued bad weather and a good indoor setup is required for late autumn and early spring to protect from frost. Tiny tortoises can easily and quickly become 'lost' in a large outdoor area and if put into the garden loose, may well never be found due to predation by large birds and other scavenging animals overnight. A safe covered pen is therefore essential. Many missing tortoises are simply dug into the ground outdoors as it is the natural thing to do to bury down. It's hardly worth looking above ground which is why raised sleeping areas etc rarely work - always think of the wild scenario where a baby would dig down rather than climb up. Hides above ground rarely give correct thermoregulation properties ie it is not easy to maintain correct temps/humidity needed for their health . Given that your tiny baby is likely going to outlive you and grow to over 20cm and around 2kg - 3kg in weight, it's important to get it's care right from the word go.
There is a lot of confusion out there as to what outdoor temps are warm enough for tortoises. Basically it does not matter what the temperature is outside so long as there is somewhere for the tortoise to warm up first. If the weather is sunny it will warm up naturally from the suns rays whatever the temperature. I have known tortoises to go outdoors on snowy days for a short time and stay quite warm while the sun is still shining. The dangers lie with leaving the tortoise outdoors in dull weather, if they do not return to their heated covered area.
Indoors you will require a HEAT SOURCE BASKING LAMP and a source of UVB. This can be provided by separate heat and uvb sources (strip lamp) and we need to think of normal daylight hours when using them, but they can be switched off earlier than sunset as tortoises will often go to bed as they see the light levels falling, just the same as in nature. I use a 100 watt spot lamp and a 10% full spectrum uvb tube. There is no need to spend extra pounds on basking bulbs from a reptile shop with glossy picture packaging, a normal 100 watt household spot will suffice or 80 watt PAR outdoor lamps are available from Wilko’s etc which are just as good  for this purpose. Generally speaking, the more time your tortoise is going to spend indoors, the better quality of uvb you should use. The plug in uvb bulbs are really not suitable as they cover a tiny area and don't ensure the tortoise has uv available at all times. You will usually need more than one to light a reasonably small area. If using the uvb tubes they need a separate starter unit to run, plus all uvb tubes need to be changed every 6 months due to deterioration. The same applies to combined lamps which need to be changed each year. The unit will still work as a light after this time but uvb will be negligible due to build up of a film inside the tube over a period of time. Please note that the heat source needs to be at one end of the enclosure so that the tortoise can get away from the heat if need be. This is also where the uvb needs to be positioned to simulate the sun. Any hides (if used) need to be at the opposite end to the heat source. You need to be aiming for a hot spot under the lamp of 32 degrees, so that the tortoise can come and go as it pleases and regulate it's body temperature accordingly. The temperature of the hot spot can be altered by raising or lowering the lamp until the correct temp is arrived at. A constant temperature throughout the enclosure is not conducive to a natural microclimate which is why most vivariums do not work so well as open topped accommodation. So long as the tortoise is being supplemented daily with a product containing vitamin D3 there is no need to panic about the amount of uvb supplied. At the end of this page is a list of links to hopefully make choosing lighting a little easier. Avoid using combination bulbs as the levels of uv are far too high for the safety of the tortoise when positioned at the correct height to give good temperature results.
Please note that if keeping in bedrooms, a tortoise will be very susceptible to illness from spraying deodorant, polish etc These propellants can kill.
Lights and any basking source need to simulate as near as possible the hours of natural daylight. Some people tend to do 12 hours on and 12 hours off but I try to adjust the times to coincide with sun rise and sunset. Any natural daylight stimulates the tortoise to emerge and go to bed too. If kept too warm overnight a tortoise can get confused and tends not to use its burying instincts.
Plenty of hiding places need to be provided in the form of cork logs, upturned plant pots etc. Try also to give different heights and depths of substrate to give the tortoise more opportunity to exercise and to make life more interesting for it.

cartoon pic here


 In the wild it is rare that you will see baby tortoises. This is because they are hiding from the sun in order to preserve moisture, usually under plants or pieces of wood, rocks etc or dug down into the soil in extreme temperatures. I provide my babies with little humidity huts to simulate this environment. They are simply plant pots or pieces of driftwood etc, well watered. I also spray the bedding in the sleeping area lightly at night to recreate the overnight dew in the wild and regularly water any sand soil enclosures as though it is a plant in a pot. As already mentioned, if the soil is deeper in this area then they will dig down to conserve moisture just as they do in the wild. The soil needs to be dry on the surface, but damp enough to hold together underneath when burrowing, especially in the case of horsfields which prefer to live in their little tunnels as opposed to surface mounted hides. Although they prefer dry conditions, a certain amount of humidity is important for hydration, which will assist with smooth growth. A vivarium climate is not good as this provides continual humidity which can cause serious respiratory problems and even early death.
As mentioned, a contributory factor to illness in tortoises can be the use of aerosols in the area when housed indoors. Deodorants, hair spray, air fresheners etc can kill a tortoise so please be careful to use these products in a different room or remove the tortoise from the room for several hours if their use is a necessity.
The most important thing in my opinion at this stage is hydration, even before food! A tiny tortoise can dry out in the sun surprisingly quickly which is why, more often than not they will be inclined to hide away. Even captive bred babies have the sense to dig down when things are getting a little warm for them.

I do provide very shallow trays or saucers of water for the tortoise to drink from, although with correct moisture levels below ground they rarely use them. They often urinate or defaecate at the same time as drinking, so it is important that the container is easy to remove and clean. The reason that tortoises do this is because in the wild they do not chance upon water every day and so hold onto urine until they get an opportunity to replenish water supplies. The danger of allowing this in the drier home environment though, is the risk of build up of urates which could lead to bladder stones, which is why it is important to keep the substrate watered - not soggy but damp at the bottom. Bladder stones can require surgery to remove and may be life threatening (a vet is unlikely to perform such an operation on a baby) so you can see the importance of hydration, particularly in babies. When a tortoise urinates it will often pass a white discharge known as urates at the same time. Urates are simply waste uric acid and are perfectly normal so long as they are liquid and never dry or powdery. Liquid urates are a sign of a tortoise being well hydrated. Dry or powdery urates are a sign of dehydration and so bathing and availability to water must be increased. If a tortoise is never seen to pass urates then keep a close eye to be sure a bladder stone is not forming. It can of course simply mean that he is extremely well hydrated to the point that urates do not form so noticeably.
Any water container is best placed away from the edge of the enclosure, as it is easy for the babies to tip up while climbing, with possible serious consequences. Do not place directly beneath the basking lights as the shallow water can get quite warm very quickly. If the tortoise continually makes a mess of its water dish it is quite acceptable to just soak it in a shallow bath periodically instead of leaving things to chance. I leave them in (fully supervised) for around 10 - 15 minutes to make sure they have a chance to drink and eliminate waste, although when kept on well hydrated substrate they usually try to climb straight out. Do not used scrubbing brushes to clean the shell as new growth is very sensitive. If soiled the shell can be cleaned with a damp cotton bud or a soft artists brush. No drying is necessary as you will find the tortoise will bask after bathing just as it would in nature.
A piece of slate or terracotta is provided for the tortoise to feed upon. This assists the beak and claws to wear down naturally doing away with the need to trim. I place this fairly close to the basking area, but never directly underneath a lamp and on an angle/slope, facing away from the lamp so that if the tortoise does manage to tip itself up it will roll away from the heat source to comparative safety. A heat source directly above a slate area would literally cook a basking hatchling (put your hand on a slate positioned this way - ouch!) Try not to put hides, tunnels etc too near to the corners or edges of the enclosure as they will be used to assist escape attempts. Tortoises are always looking for somewhere new to explore. One or more tortoises will use each other to climb on too so make sure that the height of walls is at least equal to the length of two tortoises if you have more than one.
Provide your tortoise with lots of hidey holes and things to climb on such as little caves and logs or a pile of stones. Live plants are difficult to maintain in an indoor setup but outdoors in a stone sink or similar, can be very effective once established. I also sow some of the tladys seed mix direct and the babies eat the seedlings as they come through. This is prepared by Herbiseed and can be found on Lin Kings website at
A word about vivarium accommodation. Vivariums are exceptionally difficult to maintain correctly for tortoises, unless very large and with a lot of ventilation. The average pet shop 2ft vivarium is totally unsuitable and can soon lead to a dead tortoise as there is not room for the tortoise to choose its own heat levels. Some people think that a tortoise will get cold if not completely surrounded. This is of course a myth, as wild tortoises get quite cold at night and come out to bask in the sun in the day, even then they will spend a considerable amount of time in the shade, where they are actually quite cool to the touch. Basking raises the body temps to a level which is optimum to feeding and digestion, but the tortoise needs to get away from the heat source once warmed up, as to have this level of heat maintained would be detrimental to it's health or worse. I therefore, do not recommend vivariums, on the ground that there is not a lot of room for error. Tortoises also do not understand the concept of glass and so if it can see out, it will constantly try to walk through the glass, causing much stress and possibly be more likely to tip itself up and dehydrate if near to the heat source.


Tiny tortoises eat exactly the same as the parents. They do not need their food cutting into tiny pieces or mashing etc. The more difficult it is to get at the food the better, as this provides vital exercise for tiny muscles to develop. I feed daily and scatter the food around the enclosure when possible, so that the tortoise has to exercise to look for it. Whenever possible feed only weeds as this is what the tortoise would eat in the wild and more often than not, will have a better calcium to phosphorous ratio to ensure healthy bone and internal organ development. Have a look at the diet section for more on the types of weeds to feed.
During the first year of growth, 2-4 grams a month weight gain is a reasonable target to aim for. After a year or so a slightly higher gain is OK, aiming for adult size at around 10 - 15 years of age.
Avoid at all costs, any prepared tortoise foods available in pet shops. They are far too high in protein, salts, artificial colourings and flavourings etc and believe it or not, can result in a seriously deformed or even dead tortoise. They are also highly addictive and many people who have tried these products have difficulty getting their pets to eat natural food at a later date. Weight gain can be massive using these products, which is not good for health. Slow growth as in nature is the way to go. A good guide is to look at the lighter coloured band of growth around each scute, particularly the marginals (bottom layer of scutes). This line needs to be very fine, just like a pencil line, If there are wider bands of growth then your tortoise is growing too quickly. At around ten years the tortoise will be almost adult size and growth lines will be less noticeable throughout it's life.Avoid fruit as this leads to loose smelly stools and an increase in gut flora, producing an unwell tortoise. Poor gut flora often leads to a proliferation of parasites.
Do not rely on the tortoises instinct to know what is poisonous and what is not. Sometimes they will avoid toxic plants but often they develop a liking for deadly plants such as foxglove, rhubarb leaves or lobelia.
In an emergency, when weed supplies are low, organic rocket, watercress, florette crispy salad and romaine lettuce can be given, but if supermarket salad is fed on a regular basis, loose bowels will often develop.
In this country most soils are not so naturally calcium rich as in the Mediterranean. For this reason the diet needs to be supplemented with a calcium rich food additive. I use Nekton MSA sprinkled very lightly on the food daily for hatchlings and growing tortoises and 2-3 times a week for adults. Nutrobal and Vionate are also fine for older tortoises but avoid those containing phosphorous. In addition I sprinkle the outdoor areas liberally with food quality limestone flour (available from horse feed supplies) and daily sprinkle the food with this too.
Do not use the limestone flour from Garden Centres as this often has harmful additives or traces not suitable for feed stuffs. Cuttlefish (as fed to budgies) is also a reasonable source of calcium although not many tortoises will eat it until it has weathered outdoors for several weeks to get rid of the fishy smell. I also remove the hard shell backing for hatchlings to avoid accidents.
Weight gain is not a steady process and can go from gaining nothing in one month to gaining a fair bit in another. Tortoises tend to gain more weight in spring, following hibernation. A lot of this is just re-filling the gut that has been empty during hibernation. So long as the tortoise has a decent heat supply and moist areas to hide away in, it should grow naturally and without too many lumps and bumps. Any drop in weight needs to be monitored in case there is an underlying illness. If there is no sign of weight picking up then do consult a qualified exotics vet.

Lighting Requirements

I now recommend Swell Reptiles online for all separate uvb and basking lamps and stands.

Always bear in mind that your young tortoise is essentially a wild animal and no matter how fond of it you are, or how you keep it, it's instincts will be strong. Attempts to humanise or treat as a mammal will almost always end with problems. Remember that they have been thriving for millions of years  (very close to the age of the dinosaur ) without any help from man and that they do NOT adapt to our ways of living, rather we have to adapt to theirs, regarding provision of their most basic requirements. If kept correctly with not too much interaction of the human kind, there is not a lot to go wrong, but stress is quite common amongst newly acquired tortoises, which can in turn cause various health problems.That is not to say you should not pay lots of attention to your tortoise, just that it should not be excessive and preferably from a distance, as they will always be reptiles and should be respected as such.  It's difficult sometimes not to want to show off  your new pet, but this can cause enough stress to trigger  illness, so should be avoided. If a new tortoise becomes unwell, always give it time to settle before rushing off to the vet. Contact your breeder first, who will be able to advise you.  Many tortoises are very personable, but we have to try not to kid ourselves that they really care for us, but just see us as a provider of food. Companionwise, the best friend they can have is another tortoise of the same sex or a group of several females to each male.
Here's to lovely warm summers for them in the future!