Whether you are planning on getting a pet tortoise or you already have one, it’s important to know how to set up an outdoor tortoise enclosure for their enjoyment, as well as for their safety. If you choose to keep your tortoise indoors, that’s fine too! But it’s nice to give them an outside area for when we are blessed with some warm weather.
Although you may think that you can leave your tortoises to their own devices in your garden, this is dangerous for various reasons. What’s more, not every tortoise will be suited for a life outdoors.
We’re going to show you how to set up an outdoor enclosure that your beloved pets will thrive in.
Which Tortoises Can Live Outside?
Tortoises naturally live outside therefore all of them would enjoy fresh air and some sunshine, however, the UK does not always have the most ideal conditions for these cold-blooded reptiles.
Although most tortoises will enjoy some time outdoors on a warm day, if the temperatures drop too low it can cause them serious problems.
It has been said that the best temperature for tortoises is around 26-30C however this is not common in the UK, as we all know. Therefore it’s important to know your pet’s limits and keep them safe at all times.
For the first few years of your tortoise’s life, most professionals will recommend keeping your pet inside for the majority of the time and only bringing them out during periods of warm weather. Hatchlings are particularly vulnerable to predators so shouldn’t be left out for long periods unattended, or at night.
Can My Tortoise Stay Outside All Year Round?
Although wild tortoises enjoy the outdoors all year round, they live in much warmer climates than what we experience in the UK. If you live somewhere where the temperature frequently drops below 10C then you should have an indoor setup, such as a tortoise table, too.
However, even if you live in the UK, your tortoise should be able to live outside for at least some of the year, if not all of it, if you can provide supplemental heating and UV light, and a safe, secure enclosure.
Picking the Right Tortoise
Take a look at the different tortoise species and which are more tolerant of cooler weather; Mediterranean tortoises such as the marginated tortoises or the Mediterranean spur-thighed, will be much more tolerant of the cold than a desert tortoise such as the sulcata tortoise.
Another thing to consider is that if you plan on keeping your tortoise inside for some of the year then you will not want anything that grows too large, depending on your indoor setup.
If you plan on keeping your tortoise outdoors for as long as possible, be prepared for them to go into hibernation. As the temperatures begin to drop, it is only natural for your tortoise to begin the process of brumation.
This is a critical time for your tortoise so you should do your research and make sure you are fully prepared. Some tropical species of tortoises will not hibernate at all; these species will need an indoor area where they can be kept warm all year round.
What is a Suitable Outdoor Enclosure?
You may see different options for outdoor enclosures and, while they all have their pros and cons, it’s important to know the difference to ensure you are making the right decision for you and your pet.
If you opt for a shed then look for something that has windows that can open so you can provide ventilation if it gets too hot. You can also add some insulation to maintain the temperature, no matter the weather.
You will likely need to hook it up to the electricity to provide a source of heat and UV light, but make sure it is not a fire hazard if you do.
It’s a great idea to connect it to a safe outdoor run where they can enjoy some natural sunlight and fresh air when they choose to.
Greenhouses are great but they can get really hot, really fast! Despite their preference for the warm weather, tortoises can overheat and it can be dangerous! So make sure you choose a greenhouse that has ventilation.
It’s also possible to connect your greenhouse enclosure to a shed to create the perfect temperature gradient for them.
You can buy a specially made tortoise run that is perfect as a temporary enclosure for your tortoises. If you primarily keep your tortoise indoors then you can use a tortoise run as an outdoor area on those warm summer days or as an addition to your shed or greenhouse setup.
Their construction sits very low so it’s not suitable for UV lamps but it provides a secure space for your tortoises to enjoy some direct sunlight in a more natural habitat.
You should create visual barriers so that your tortoise cannot see outside of the enclosure as they can get stressed easy and may injure themselves trying to get out.
If you use this as a semi-permanent outdoor enclosure then you need to consider making it escape-proof which includes making sure that they cannot dig underneath, but more on that later.
Build it Yourself
If you like DIY and you are handy with some power tools then you can build an enclosure perfect for your tortoises. You can use sleeper logs, chain link fencing, bricks or concrete, or a combination of all of them to build something that fits the space that you have to work with.
If you use wood that is chemically treated then make sure it is child-safe to ensure it is not dangerous for your tortoise. Wood may not last as long as other options so bear this in mind when you’re planning the enclosure.
Concrete and brick will last the longest but is often more expensive than other options. Wood and concrete are also good options as they provide a visual barrier to the outside world, which we mentioned earlier.
Whatever you choose, we recommend making a plan beforehand so that you know you have all of the materials and don’t have to change it up halfway through.
Setting Up Your Tortoise Enclosure
Whether you choose to build an outdoor enclosure yourself or want to rig a shed or greenhouse to suit your tortoise species, there are several things you should take into consideration before getting started.
We recommend giving your tortoise as much space as you can; in the wild, they will roam and explore looking for food and mates, therefore the more space, the better! Obviously, if you place small tortoises in a huge enclosure then you may have trouble finding them, so you should size their enclosure accordingly.
For a pair of adult tortoises, the recommended enclosure size is 10ft x 20ft, but if you can provide more then we wouldn’t hesitate to extend it.
Tortoise theft is something you should be aware of so you should consider positioning your tortoise enclosure somewhere that is not on view for passers-by.
Your tortoise also needs access to shade as well as direct sunlight so you should think about how the sun moves throughout the day and where would be an optimum area for your tortoise. They need to have a good basking spot as well as an area to cool down if it gets too hot.
Tortoises require UV light to be able to help them synthesise vitamin D, they also need a specific temperature range to be able to perform basic bodily functions. If you want to keep your tortoises outside all year round, then you will need to hook it up to a power source for additional UV and heat lamps.
In this case, you should position your tortoise’s enclosure close to the house where you can connect it to the electricity.
Although they may not seem it, tortoises are quite the escape artists! Permanent autdoor enclosures should be dug at least 12-inches into the ground so that your pet tortoise cannot dig themselves out of their enclosure.
If you want to build an outdoor tortoise enclosure that keeps your pet safe and comfortable, you need to make sure that you provide drainage so that water does not build up inside. If the ground remains waterlogged it can cause problems with your tortoise such as shell rot or respiratory infections, which can require long term veterinary treatment.
Make small holes at ground level around the perimeter of your enclosure so that water can drain away when it rains.
Similar to dig proofing, the enclosure walls need to be tall enough that your pet tortoise cannot climb out. They should be at least 2 feet in height, but if you own large tortoises then they may need to be a little taller.
Also, make sure that you don’t put any tortoise furniture near the edge as they do love to climb and they’ll likely use it to facilitate an escape!
If you want to keep your tortoise outdoors unsupervised then you definitely to make sure it is securely covered. Filtered sunlight does not have the same benefits to your tortoise so opt for something like chicken wire to make sure your outdoor tortoise enclosure still has plenty of natural sunlight and ventilation. Some tortoise runs will incorporate hinged and latched covers for extra security, but these can easily be constructed
This will also protect your tortoise from animals that could injure your tortoise, like foxes or cats.
What do Tortoises Need in Their Enclosure?
Once you have sorted the basic structure of your enclosure, you need to kit it out with all of the extras that make your tortoise enclosure a habitable one! Just like your indoor enclosures, you need to provide water, plants, and the right substrate to keep your pet a happy one!
All tortoises need access to water for bathing and drinking. You can buy a water dish or you can construct a shallow pool out of cement.
If you want to try your hand at building your own pool then be sure to make sure that your tortoise can easily climb in and out; tortoises cannot swim so it shouldn’t be so deep that they will drown, and add stones to the side so they can maintain their footing when moving around.
Place the pond near some of your drainage holes so you can easily clean it out and provide fresh water on a regular basis.
On a warm summers day, the natural sunlight should be more than sufficient to give your tortoise what it need. However, even in the warmest months, it can still get very cold at night and, as temperatures begin to drop, you will need to consider other sources of heat to ensure your tortoise can perform basic functions like digesting its food and moving around.
If you don’t move your tortoises indoors at night then you should make sure that their enclosure is safe and secure and that they have access to a heat lamp. Many tortoise keepers will have ceramic heaters or heating panels, but have a look at your set-up and figure out what will work best for you.
Most tortoises will naturally move into the heat and shelter when they need to, however, you should always check that your tortoises are not caught outside in inclement weather.
Top Tip: A concrete slab in your tortoise enclosure will absorb heat and stay warm even after the sun goes down, this is a great tip for providing some additional warmth!
Although your tortoise will need plenty of basking spots to stay warm, they also need a shaded area so they do not overheat and can get out of the sunlight if they need to.
If you are unable to place your enclosure in an area that gets natural shade and lower temperatures, then you can include some tall plants that provide some shaded areas. Alternatively, you can use a kind of hardware cloth to stretch over a portion of their enclosure or incorporate a wooden roof section that can create extra hiding places for them, too.
The idea of any enclosure is to try and make it simulate a natural habitat, therefore, adding plants is a great way of making their outdoor areas a more stimulating space for them. It also helps to break up the space and encourage them to explore more.
If you use edible plants, like dandelions or plantain, then your tortoise will graze on them throughout the day which will contribute to their nutritional requirements and help provide them with a varied diet.
If you want to add plants just for decoration, make sure that they are potted out of reach of the tortoise and you trim them back regularly to ensure your tortoise does not eat them by accident.
The best substrate will depend on the species of your tortoise.
There are different grasses that you can grow to provide a good substrate for your tortoises, such as Bermuda or Fescue grass. However, some tortoises do not like just grass as their main substrate; Mediterranean tortoises will much prefer a mixture of soil and sand. What’s more, if the grass stays wet then it can cause respiratory problems for your tortoise which is less than ideal.
You can also buy specially formulated tortoise substrates such as cypress mulch or orchid bark which help to maintain a suitable humidity. You will need something like this for inside areas if you choose a shed or a greenhouse for your main enclosure.
Tortoises love to burrow and dig, especially if they get too hot, so you should provide them with a substrate that allows them to fulfil this natural behaviour. You can loosen some of the topsoil for them to dig around in, but be sure to watch how deep they go as you don’t want them to escape!
Very few natural tortoise habitats are flat and bare so you should give your tortoise lots of furniture to simulate a natural environment.
You should create hiding places such as rain shelters, tunnels and caves for them to go into. You can also add rock piles and different sized logs to encourage them to explore the entirety of their enclosure and make the space a little more exciting for them.
Keeping Your Tortoise Safe
When keeping your tortoise in an outdoor enclosure, your first consideration will likely be their safety. Here are a few things you should think about when setting up your habitat.
Predators and Pests
Everyone may think of predators when trying to protect their tortoises however common pests may not immediately come to mind.
Although you can easily protect your tortoise from cats, foxes, and even domesticated dogs with the use of a secure roof, some pests may require a little more work.
Mice, rats, and ants cause serious harm to tortoises if left unchecked. They will be attracted to leftover food so remove as much as you can at the end of each day. You may need to use some natural pest repellents to deter these animals if they become a problem, but make sure anything you use is non-toxic to tortoises.
Keep an eye out for new plants cropping up in your tortoise enclosure. Although many tortoises will have a good sense of which plants are toxic to them and may not eat them all, you should be sure to remove any that you cannot identify, just to be safe.
When to Bring Your Tortoise Inside
The general rule is that if the nighttime temperature drops below 10C then it’s time to move your tortoise indoors. A designated indoor setup such as a tortoise table is an ideal enclosure to have in the event that it gets too cold.
Some tropical tortoises species such as the Indian star tortoises and the leopard tortoises are more sensitive to the cold than others, as their natural habitats are hot all year round. These tortoises do not naturally hibernate therefore should be brought inside when the ambient temperature begins to drop below their ideal range.
A suitable indoor tortoise table can provide them with the heat and UV light that they would not be able to get from an outdoor enclosure during winter in the UK.
Keeping Your Tortoises Outside
Building an outdoor enclosure for your pet includes basic tortoise care such as heat lamps and substrate choice, however now you know that you also need to consider drainage, shade, and predators, too!
Although most tortoises can spend time outside, their health and safety are most important so be sure that the temperature is safe for them, that they have a good basking spot, and other animals will not cause them any harm.
Do your tortoises spend time outside or do you keep them in a tortoise table in the house? Let us know more about your setup in the comments!