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Outdoor Tortoise Enclosures

- for small, dryish area species -

Angulate / Angulated tortoise, Chersina angulata

Angulate tortoise (Chersina angulata) in her outdoor pen.

Outdoors is best

Tortoises love being outdoors where they can live a "tortoise life" exploring, grazing, and basking. If you have any outdoor space, please do provide an outside pen for your tortoises. Nothing beats real sunshine and natural vegetation. Weather permitting, of course.

GO BIG !!! Give your tortoises the biggest outdoor pen you can. They will appreciate it. The only exception are hatchlings and youngsters who will do fine in a small pen for the first year of life or so. Babies and small juvenile tortoises would get lost (you wouldn't find them) in a big enclosure. For the little ones, the enclosure should have a predator proof cover.

Use plenty of plants for tortoises to eat and hide under, variations in the ground level, several shady hiding places, and various substrate areas (soil, rocky area, damp, dry etc). Obstacles, like large rocks or logs, and mounds of soil create many different paths for tortoises to follow.

Star tortoises outdoors

I keep my Sri Lankan (Geochelone elegans) and Burmese Star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) outdoors when the temperature is around 70 °F (21 °C) and above. Also, when it's warm and not very windy, a temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and above is often sufficient as long as the enclosure is in the sun.

Ideally, never keep Star tortoises outside overnight if the temperature falls below 60-65 °F (16-18 °C), unless they have a warm house they can retreat to. They may tolerate lower temperatures, but why take the risk? Be especially cautious in wet and cold conditions. I do not leave my Star tortoises out at night for temperature and security reasons.

Angulate tortoises outdoors

My Angulates (Chersina angulata) go out when it's sunny and above 60-65 °F (16-18 °C). Like my Stars, they spend their nights indoors, although, they would probably be just fine outdoors in my area for most of the year.

Golden Greeks outdoors

My Golden / Mesopotamian Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca) are more cold tolerant than my Star tortoises. I live in a warm, but not hot, climate with mild winters where the night temperatures almost never go down to freezing. My Goldens, except the smallest babies, stay outdoors year round. During summer, spring, and fall no additional heat is required for them in my area, but in the winter they have heated night houses to keep them cozy.

outdoor tortoise pens

One of the Star tortoise pens and a covered hatchling pen. My Stars love hiding under bushes and grass tussocks.

Middle eastern Greek tortoise

One of my Greek youngster pens.

Netting & hardware cloth covers

a.) Bird & deer netting

Bird netting is affordable, almost invisible from far away, available in many widths, can be cut with scissors, and it prevents cats from using tortoise pens as their toilets. Typical grid size is 1/2" x 1/2". Bird netting works for supervised daytime use, but it is NOT sturdy enough to keep dogs and other serious predators away, especially if you leave your tortoises outside overnight. Be very, very careful if you have dogs, and protect your tortoises at all times. Dogs love to chew tortoises! :0(

Deer fence netting is made of thicker, stronger plastic than bird netting but has larger mesh openings (1" x 1"). It's stiffer and easier to work with than flimsier bird netting which gets caught on every little snag and spur. Deer netting may be too narrow to cover wide pens, but smaller pieces can be joined together with zipties to cover larger areas.

b.) Hardware cloth

A safer outdoor enclosure cover would be tightly woven steel hardware cloth in a strong frame attached securely to the pen. The mesh openings should be 1/2" or smaller to keep all sizes of rats out and 1/4" to keep small mice out.

The 1/4" mesh hardware cloth is typically made of 23 gauge steel. It’s fairly easy to work with and cut to size. The 1/2" mesh hardware cloth is thicker and less flexible being made of 19 gauge steel. It’s stronger, but also much more difficult to cut than the thinner 1/4" hardware cloth. It can be a real pain in the bu** if you have to cut complex shapes out of it.

Caution! Leaving dog, cat, and commercial tortoise food outside overnight attracts rodents and other predators. I empty all food and water dishes every evening and refill them the following morning.

outdoor tortoise enclosure

Bird netting is ok for supervised day time use, but it's NOT strong enough as a permanent predator barrier.

Baby tortoise pen covers

Many people like to build their own tortoise pens and houses from scratch, but not everyone has the interest, time, space, or tools to do so. Or the big truck to haul the building materials home in the first place. :O)

I am not a DIY builder, so I am always looking for items that I can repurpose or alter for my tortoises. Rabbit pens and runs can be modified fairly easily for baby tortoise use. I always look for rabbit runs that use small space (1/4" - 1/2") hardware cloth, or at least have very closely spaced bars.

baby tortoise pen cover

This BABY tortoise pen is actually a rabbit run made with 1/2" hardware cloth. It's a well priced, 71" x 36" x 19"H (2,556 sq in) size Advantek pen. It has two top openings and two end openings.

You can join these pens together length wise by leaving the end panels out, or sideways if you cut new openings in the wire netting. The wood is lightweight and on the softer side, so it might not be strong enough for night use, but it works well for supervised daytime use. So easy, no building required! :O)

The landscape blocks around the pen block the babies' view out of the pen and also prevent them from digging under the walls and escaping. In hot weather, additional shade is required, for example, you can drape shade cloth or place wood boards on the side and/or top.

baby tortoise pen cover

Here's another rabbit pen I've used a a BABY tortoise enclosure cover. This one is an Ardinbir pen (57" x 36" x 22" H) for rabbits and chickens. It's made of solid fir and 1/2" steel mesh. It has a folding top that opens 2/3 of the way and one side access door. You can easily attach two of them together by removing the side doors.

This pen could also be used as a night pen for older tortoises if you secure the sides well. Then during the day, you open the small door to allow access to the large, main pen.

Note: In this photo the pen is NOT YET properly set up for tortoises.

Night protection cages

I have been searching for a long time for strong, expandable, and low height cages to use as predator protection cages at night, and now I have found them! Modular, welded steel frame Animal Houses by Jewett-Cameron.

Animal House wall panels and gate doors are available in 60" x 30" and 30" x 30" sizes. The standard duty panels have 2" x 2" wire openings and the heavy duty panels have 3" x 3/4" openings. Panels are modular and can be attached in endless ways to create pens in all shapes and sizes, from small to large and low to tall.

These panels are new to the 2015-16 market. As of March 2016, Amazon has over a dozen different Animal House kitsfor sale with free shipping! For example, the Animal House standard duty kit AH 51204 and the heavy duty kit AH 71404 in the same size make great night cages for smaller tortoises. Both are 120" x 60" x 30" high in size.

For more info and examples of these cages, see the outdoor houses, blog p.2, and blog p.4 pages.

predator protection cage / enclosure cover for nights

This one's a small night cage I built using the heavy duty panels. Both top panels are full size gate doors (60" x 30") for easy access and the front gate is a half size (30" x 30") door.

Animal House night time predator protection cage / enclosure cover

I placed the heated house more towards the front of the cage so that there will be a shaded area behind it.

Portable, low height steel pens

If you need something temporary, modular puppy pen panels work well. They can be installed or taken down on a moments notice, but because they are see-through, you'll need to attach some kind of view barrier to the bottom of the panels. The perimeter should be dig proofed with stone blocks or other ways.

The steel pen panels I've used are available several heights (24", 32", 40") and in black or gray color. Eight panel kits are sold under various brand names for about $60 and up. I like the 24" height panels because I can easily step over them without having to open the gate. Plus they are the cheapest! :0) I use as many kits as needed to create the pen size I need. Here's a link to the eight panel 24" pen kits I've bought ($55 w. free shipping, over 120 customer photos).

modular, steep pen panels

I used the gray 24" tall steel panels for this tortoise enclosure. This pen is super easy to install, just attach the panels to the support stakes and push the stakes into the ground. I placed stone blocks along the outer edges to prevent digging under.

modular, portable tortoise pen

Same 24" panels. I placed green plastic sheeting along the outer edge as a sight barrier for the tortoises.

Wooden pens

Wooden outdoor pens are popular because they are easy to construct in any size and height. They are also fairly inexpensive, or even free if you happen to have left over scrap wood from other projects.

The main problem with wood pens is that they have to be bottom or perimeter proofed for digging tortoises. If the bottoms of the walls are not well secured, strong tortoises can easily push themselves under the boards and slip away. Or, they can quickly dig under the thin walls and escape.

Covered corners provide shady hiding places and help prevent any climbing attempts. Enclosure corners are favorite climbing spots for tortoises who like to scale walls.

Wooden enclosures work well for adult Star tortoises because they are not big diggers or wall climbers. Babies are more agile and need a pen top for security.

Stone block pens

I have used wooden enclosures, chain link pens, welded wire mesh kennels, dog play pens, and stone block walls as tortoise pens outdoors. Decorative stone blocks are my favorite material to use. They look great but are fairly expensive to buy in large quantities. Plus, they are very heavy to lift and haul. Auch!

I like enclosures build with natural looking stone blocks better than ones made with plain concrete construction bricks, aka cement or cinder blocks. I just casually place the stones on top of each other. This makes my backyard look like it's full of ancient Greek or Roman ruins. Maybe an archeological dig site. :O)

Stone block pens have many advantages. They can be build in any shape, and later moved or enlarged as needed. Stone blocks are very durable and can't be eaten by insects. They can even be painted to match your outdoor decor. Stone blocks also retain heat from the sun for a while and can provide slightly warmer areas during the evening. No special skills or tools are required to build stone pens. Just lift and stack. Smaller tortoises cannot push or move these blocks because they weigh about 20 lb each.

To help prevent escapes by wall climbing, you can build the top layer with larger or flatter stone blocks to create a small overhang. A wooden "lip frame" is another choice. A wooden top frame also allows for easy fastening of wire top lids.

For diggers, you can lay an extra line of stone blocks on the outside of the walls. This way your tortoise would have to dig through two block widths to get out. With daily inspections, you would probably notice any escape attempts before he got that far. Or, you can place flat concrete pieces dug down into the dirt next to the inner wall edges.

One negative aspect of stone blocks is their hard, rough surface. If your tortoise is a fence walker and likes to patrol the pen perimeter, he may scrape his shell against the surface of the walls. This can cause some scute wear and tear in contact areas. Lining the insides of the pen walls with some smooth material, like thin wood or plastic helps.

stone block tortoise pen

Stone block tortoise pens.

Golden Greek tortoise pen

Stone block pen for adult Golden Greeks. Cap those corners. Many escapes happen due to corner climbing.

Concrete block pens

Large, concrete construction blocks (16" x 8" x 8") with hollow cores are a popular, easy to use building material for outdoor tortoise pens. They are also called concrete masonry units, foundation blocks, cement blocks, cinder blocks, or breeze blocks. Concrete blocks can be be gray or brown in color. All you need to do is to stack them. You can finish the top of the wall with thinner 2" block caps to hide the holes on the top of the walls.

These blocks are very heavy, 20-30 lb each, and require no mortar to install, unless your tortoises are jumbo size or super excavators. For example, big sulcatas can push the walls down and burrowing tortoises may dig under the block walls to cause them to collapse.

Plain concrete blocks cost less than $1 a piece, but they are not very attractive looking. A more visually appealing alternative to plain concrete blocks are concrete slumpstone blocks. They are available in various sizes, shapes, and colors. They can look like chiseled stone or old adobe bricks with a textured surface.

Chain link & welded wire kennels

Chain link dog kennel runs can be used as outdoor tortoise enclosures, but they are not the prettiest to use in main yard areas. A less intrusive alternative is to use low height chain link fence mesh. Vinyl coated mesh is available in several heights and colors. Black or green mesh seems to blend in the surroundings better than galvanized.

On the other hand, if you'd like to build a walk-in tortoise pen with a top, tall kennel or tennis court chain link panels are perfect for that. Large, outdoor walk-in bird aviaries would work as well, but they tend to be quite expensive.

Nowadays, many dog kennels and runs are made with welded wire mesh panels instead of chain link. These modular panels are nice looking, strong, and they are available in several sizes and heights. They can be attached in various ways to create pens in almost any size to fit your available space. The wire mesh is usually black and the mesh openings vary from 1" to 4" and larger.

To prevent your tortoise from seeing through the wire panel walls and trying to get out through them, cover the bottom of the run about a foot high with wooden boards, plants, or chain link fence slats. You can also plant grasses or vines along the sides as a vision barrier.

welded wire panel & hardware cloth

You can also use dog kennel panels, chrome wire shelves, closet wire shelves, garage wire shelves, and so on, to create predator proof enclosure enclosures and covers. If the openings are large, cover the panels with 1/4” or 1/2” hardware cloth. I cut the the hardware cloth to size with snip scissors and then tie it to the panels with wire or UV resistant outdoor zipties.

Climbing & digging

Adult Star tortoises are not very good climbers, but even they may scale enclosure walls if cage furniture or plants are positioned too close to the walls. Babies, on the other hand, can be quite agile! Remember to place all pen items away from the walls and cap the corners.

You have to be especially careful with good climbers and diggers like Box turtles, Greeks, and Russian tortoises. Climbers need pens with high, escape-proof walls and/or a cover, and diggers need some kind of dig proofing around the perimeter.

climbing star tortoise

This agile little Indian Star fellow is using the flower pot for support to climb up the wall. Photo courtesy of Devin Louis.

Golden Greek tortoise climbing a wall

My Greeks are way better climbers than my Stars! Before I capped the corner, this Golden Greek girl did escape from her pen by climbing up this very corner. Twice. Once with no net and once by slipping under the cover netting. Since then, she has been known as Hudina (female version of Houdini). :O)

You can see how each level of the rock wall slightly overlaps the one below to discourage climbing, but that wasn't enough to stop her. It would be safer to build a free form pen with no straight corners, or one with a lip all around.

Golden / Mesopotamian Greek tortoise climbing

The disadvantage of hardware cloth walls is that nimble tortoises, like this little Mesopotamian Greek, can scale up the walls!

Moving tortoises in & out

Natural tortoise rearing proponents oppose moving tortoises between indoor and outdoor pens on a daily basis. Interestingly, I found a 2007 article on husbandry and breeding of Golden Greek tortoises that addresses this issue. It was written by David S. Lee and Mike Lowe of the TortoiseReserve.org. Update: That website is gone now, but you can read the page in the internet archive.

Excerpt: "Group wintering indoors: Despite being moved in and out, and from pen to pen on a regular basis these turtles show no sign of stress and seem content with the routine, often feeding and mating within minutes of being moved. This is contrary to what some authors have suggested as they insist that the captive tortoises should be handled and moved as little as possible in order to assure consistency and to achieve maximum reproductive success."

I move my Star and Angulate tortoises in and out daily. They seem to have adapted to it without problems. Switching between indoor and outdoor pens is a familiar routine for them. The keyword here is ROUTINE. Whatever you do with your tortoises, it's best to develop a schedule for it. Tortoises like familiarity and routine. New, unknown places and unexpected changes in their daily life are stressful for them.

 

 

Related page: outdoor tortoise houses

 

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