Ever since there had been any risk of frost, Henry, in his customised “house”, had been in hibernation in a partitioned section of our garage, where a thermostatically controlled heater had ensured that the temperature had never fallen too close to freezing. However, I was not certain that the heater could cope if outside temperatures were 3-4 degrees lower than the -6 being forecast for tonight – and forecasts can be wrong.
So it was decision time and I decided to bring Henry indoors and allow him to warm up gradually until he showed some signs of life and then apply the usual annual procedure.
If you are wondering what on earth I am talking about, let me explain as briefly as I can. Tortoises hibernate from autumn to spring every year, and this process is triggered by a reduction in light levels and average temperatures. As cold-blooded creatures, their body temperature is the same as that of their surroundings. During hibernation at a suitably low temperature, body functions slow right down to almost zero so that the nutrient reserves accumulated in the summer will last until waking up time in the spring. Waking up should be triggered by rising temperatures to coincide with a time when food will be ready and waiting in the wild. But tortoises did not originate in the UK and are not able to cope with our climate all the year round. Henry seems to hibernate a bit early in the autumn (not surprising after last year’s summer) and then wake automatically after about 16-18 weeks when the UK climate is anything but suitable.
I am no tortoise expert but I must be doing something right because Henry hasn’t complained over the past 25+ years. To me it is still a minor miracle each year when he wakes up. This year’s miracle happened yesterday, January 8th.
As soon as Henry has had a few hours to get used to being awake again I give him a bath in plain, tepid water. This should encourage him to drink and helps him to get warm and if the water feels only slightly warm to the touch that seems to be enough . We don’t want a lightly boiled tortoise, just a very gently warmed one. No doubt if it was too warm, Henry would climb out of his shallow plastic bath with something approaching alacrity. Instead, he seems to enjoy it, settling down in his bath with the water up to his chin without moving at all for anything up to 15-20 minutes. This is all very well for him but it means that I have to remove some water from time to time and replace it with warmer water as the whole bath cools. Some tortoises are just spoilt rotten!
I have never seen Henry drink, even in hot summer weather, but knowing him he probably takes a sip or two when I am not looking just to keep me worrying. So I keep up the daily bath routine at least until he is eating again (usually after about five days) and although water is a major constituent of many of his foods I can ensure that he gets more by putting it on his leafy foods.
This year I have set up a “basking lamp” for Henry. This consists of a low wattage bulb fitted in an old photographic lamp and attached to a tall lamp stand. The light, and gentle warmth, from the lamp is aimed at part of Henry’s “house” and acts as his private “sun”. Like any celeb worthy of the name he has spent time in his personal sun lounge already and, in between these basking sessions, eats and then buries himself in a darker corner to sleep for a while. This arrangement eliminates last year’s problem when daylight was frequently poor and temperatures barely adequate. In such conditions tortoises tend to become sluggish and in danger of hibernating again. This must not be allowed to happen simply because they have not had the summer months in which to replenish their reserves – so if they hibernate again they are very likely to die.
During 2009 my daughter, Jennie, set herself numerous craft projects (as shown on her blog), many of which were intended as Christmas presents for family members and friends. My presents included a crochet tortoise, a marvellous piece of work and a splendid specimen. The idea was that he would keep me company while Henry was in hibernation. Apparently his name is Joshi and he is low-maintenance, requiring neither light nor heat nor hibernation. I must introduce him to Henry!