Russian/Horsfield Caresheet


The horsfield or russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)  is often lumped in with other Mediterranean species when it comes to husbandry. In fact the russian tortoise needs very different care if it is to thrive in this country. I find it very sad to see this lovely little tortoise frequently offered for sale as an easy beginners tortoise, along with either tanks/vivariums or very shallow table top enclosures. The reason they are becoming so popular in pet shops is that they do not need papers to sell them, meaning there is also no need for microchips to be sold. Their utmost need is to burrow and to be able to live primarily underground as nature intended. Yes, they are relatively easy to keep, providing these needs are foremost in our minds when purchasing one.

I would say the horsfield is a fairly nondescript looking little tortoise which more than makes up for this lack of outward beauty by its characterful behaviour and personality and certainly can provide hours of entertainment if you have nothing better to do on a sunny day.

One thing worth noting is that a horsfield tortoises body can often appear to be a little puffy or bloated in comparison with other tortoises, especially in the areas between the tops of the legs and the shell. Occasionaly eyes can appear puffy too, so if eating normally don't rush into anything. This is perfectly normal for this species and should not be considered reason for a vets visit. 

Horsfields are a burrowing species and do not do well in indoor situations long term. Anyone who has tried to keep one in a small indoor enclosure will surely testify to the amount of scratching and scraping they do before finally settling down at night.
I personally think that this is distressing to a tortoise which is obviously trying to dig itself a long tunnel to sleep in. Whereas many Mediterranean tortoises simply bury down at night or when hiding from hot sun, horsfields actually like to retire to a burrow that they use time and time again. Once the burrow is established, there would appear to be little desire from them to redevelop this area. Several tortoises seem happy to use the same burrow.

Obviously there are times when an indoor area is essential for one reason or another. Unfortunately, not many pet outlets give the correct information re housing these special little torts and by the time you have found out all is not what it seems, it is often too late and you have incorrect set-ups up and running. If you have been persuaded to buy a vivarium, heat mat etc then do try to get the shop to take them back as they are certainly not fit for the purpose intended. As already mentioned, a horsfield is a burrowing species and life in a vivarium or shallow sided table top is just not an option for them. An outdoor enclosure is a must, but until such an undertaking can be properly planned (rushed enclosures rarely work satisfactorily) it is possible to set up a substantial indoor area for a couple of hatchlings at very low cost.
For babies I have a 1ft deep storage box (the type purchased from Ikea or similar) which I half fill with a top soil mix. Outlets such as B+Q or Homebase sell top soil very reasonably. The substrate does not have to be sterilised but it does need to be safe, with no bits of glass, polythene etc.
Many people start by drying out any substrate, this is a bad idea as in order to tunnel, the substrate needs to hold together, this is impossible with dry soil.  A few fibrous roots, lumps of slate and rock will assist with this too and make tunnelling easy for little tortoises.
I water my substrate regularly to prevent it from totally drying out. You will find once the tunnels are formed, the walls dry quite nicely and the tortoise will retire to this area each night and at periods during the day too. Because the enclosure is damp on the bottom, it will sustain a few plants too, such as aloe vera, heathers (for hiding under and digging into roots), pansies etc. Be aware though that edible plants will be eaten and need to be replaced,. Leave the roots in place in case they are supporting soil above a tortoise home.
Cleaning is straightforward - remove any noticeable mess daily but the entire enclosure only needs to be cleaned periodically, as indoor setups should not be considered to be permanent. If outdoors of course, then spot cleaning is all that is needed as the weather will do the rest.

As in the care of other hatchlings (see hatchlings caresheet section), heat needs to be at the opposite end of the enclosure to the hide/tunnel area and provision made for the possible upturning of hatchlings so that they can move away from potential danger if need be. Hides as such are not necessary, but half plant pots, hollow logs etc placed over deep soil will encourage the little one to dig down or tunnel deeper. Lighting and heat sources need to coincide with the times of natural daylight hours wherever possible. I set mfy lamps on timers to ensure this.

When setting up an outdoor area for them it is important to dig out the area and line it with either strong wire mesh, joined with wire, or concrete slabs with tiny gaps for drainage. Horsfields can dig to around 9 feet and if not contained will soon be taking up residence in a neighbours garden instead of your own. Obviously this could have tragic consequences. As they say, been there, done that, worn the T-shirt. I was lucky enough for my little escape artist to re-appear 6 months later having hibernated underground at sub-zero temps. I would have sworn he was secure, obviously not. Corners are the most likely underground escape routes.
Once dug out, fully lined and back filled with soil it is important to make lots of hills and to plant small bushes etc to break up the line of sight of the tortoise to give them lots of areas to explore. They will choose their own area to dig a tunnel which will be south facing.

Horsfields are very highly geared to hibernation and so at the end of summer, be prepared for your little one to suddenly slow down and refuse food, while wanting to dig down and hide away. Once this happens it is very difficult to keep them going under lamps, unlike other species, due to the nature of their natural cycle of eating, being so short. Make sure that your horsfield is worm free and healthy during the summer, in case this happens and you have to offer an earlier than expected hibernation period. If they do go into hibernation early, then it is usually much easier to get them going again under lamps once they have had a good resting period. Hibernation guidelines are given under the 'Hibernation' section. If for any reason, a horsfield has to be kept awake over winter, then it is important to keep weigh stable and not aim for any weight gain, due to it being a species that does not naturally feed for 12 months of the year. This will help with smooth growth and prevent it from becoming overweight, which will impact on the tortoises long term health.

If you do happen to lose one of your little ones, either by burrowing underground or by climbing out, it's worth getting down to tortoise level when looking for them. It's incredibly easy to overlook a hiding tortoise from above, but then find it where you will be sure to have looked before, if down at their level. Feel around underneath plants and edges of lawns or in corners near to walls etc. Very often they are closer than you think. It's also worth leaving out a 'forbidden' treat for your escapee too. Sometimes you will spot the little give away triangular bite marks in a leaf or piece of tomato or tasty fruit. Never give up as they can often hide close to home for some time, especially if the weather has become colder.

I make a cover to weather proof tunnel entrances against the British weather. You can either cover the area with a box and cover this with soil leaving the entrance clear, or any weather proof cover can be made from wood, slate etc depending on how adventurous you are. It is important too to give them an area which is heated so that they can choose which option to use in really bad weather. It is equally important to make sure that once they are under cover, they still have a depth of soil to dig down into and not just be in a box above ground, otherwise this will create the same sort of stress as a vivarium as they will continue to scratch to dig down, when there is nowhere for them to go.

Diet is the same as hermanns and other Mediterranean species, as is temperature requirement and general humidity. It is worth noting though that horsfields are exceptionally greedy and apt to grow far too fast, often with disastrous consequences. Sadly, deformed shells cannot be corrected once formed and so it is up to the owner to not overfeed and keep babies weight gain to 2-5 grams a month to avoid some of the more exaggerated shell deformities. A naturally grown horsfield will have a flatter rounder shell than most Mediterranean species to enable it to navigate tunnels succesfully. Those fed to excess will display high domed shells, often with lumps and bumps and even curled edges or excessive growth on just one side of the shell. As mentioned, all this can be avoided by regular weighing in the early years.

While the russian tortoise does not like a cold, permanently damp enclosure, humidity is often fairly high in the underground tunnels. So long as they have a warm dry area to bask in they will do much better outdoors even in our British summers. The key, I find, is to give the tortoises their own choice. So long as the option is always there for dry basking conditions in the day if they choose, then they will thrive. Tiny babies need exactly the same type of microclimate and an opportunity to do this on a smaller scale. I keep my hatchlings in deep tubs of soil with access to lots of light and natural sun from the open doors of my conservatory. After a year or so, they move to a secure outdoor enclosure, making sure that it is netted to prevent attack by birds. I water these enclosures well at the outset to allow a decent tunnel to be constructed.Prolonged damp periods, just the same as prolonged arid conditions are not a good choice - you will find your tortoise knows what is best for him, given the options.
The horsfields desire to dig is equalled only by their ability to climb. For this reason, bushes and man made structures should not be too close to the perimeter of the enclosure or those keen eyes will soon spy an escape route. Do make sure that walls are capped with an overhang on the inside to prevent escape,

Russians are notorious for their dislike of bathing. Whilst outside this is not a problem as the humidity outdoors is naturally higher, especially in any tunnels, indoors they benefit from regular bathing in shallow containers. Test weighing before and after bathing, shows that they do take some water in by doing this. I do try though, not to have russians indoors any longer than necessary.

pic of indoor enclosure with lamp

In the outdoor covered area I provide heat lamps only. It is relatively easy to set up a heat lamp in a shed or kennel type hide area. If you are concerned about the danger of electrics outside then I would suggest using pond cable which is geared to wet conditions. Always protect it both under and above ground by using conduit and run it through a circuit breaker, to prevent accidents in the event of the wire being broken or damaged in any way. The amount of time tortoises spend outdoors ensures they have plenty of natural uvb from the sun, even on duller days, so eliminating the need for a seperate uvb source. In the covered area too, is a tubular heater set on a thermostat to kick in at around 8 degrees for cooler nights and for cool times during wind down to hibernation. At this time my russians are kept in the indoor heated area to prevent them tunnelling too deep and not being seen again until spring.
Spring time heralds the start of mating, which they do in earnest. It is not a seasonal activity for tortoises, but continues throughout the warmer months right up to hibernation. It is important therefore, to give the females a rest from the males from time to time for both their sakes. Females can become stressed from the males relentless desire to mate and males can lose some serious body weight from over indulging in their favourite activity. When kept indoors while active, russians can become particularly stressed from each others advances and lack of hiding places. This can lead to some nasty injuries through fighting.

As with other species, mounds of soil with a sunny, south facing slope are often chosen for egg laying. Nesting can be a lengthy business, often with several trial nests dug over several days, the final succesful nesting sometimes taking the best part of a day to complete. If there is more than one female attempting to dig a nest they will often get quite aggresive with each other and a fair bit of argy bargy can take place between them.

It is best to remove other tortoises from the area if one is nesting as russians can be quite slow with this procedure and any unwanted interference can result in them giving up until another day.
Egg incubation is the same as for other species. Russian babies take upwards of 60 days to hatch.
Parents have nothing to do with their offspring once the eggs are laid and tiny tortoises go about their business in the same way as adults from day one.

Contact to see if there are any babies available this year.