The question of what to feed in winter is a problem that perplexes many keepers. Some resort to buying lettuces and cabbage, and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, this is far from the best and assembling a much healthier diet is not only fairy easy, but interesting too.
Obviously, the fewer tortoises you have to feed the easier it gets. If you have quite a large number awake (as we do) then making up the required bulk can be a bit of a challenge, but with some careful planning in spring and summer, a healthy diet can still be achieved, even in the depths of winter.
Our approach is to start with some of the more interesting bagged salad mixes available at your local supermarket or greengrocer, for example, herb salads, wild rocket salads, baby leaf salads, and Mediterranean salads. These typically comprise a fairly good range of green and red-leaf salad ingredients and make up a good general base. The typical ingredients include escarole, radicchio, tatsoi, rocket, endive, lambs lettuce, red chard, mizuna, coriander, apollo lettuce, lollo rosso, lollo verde, baby red oak lettuce, green batavia lettuce, baby lollo biondi, tango lettuce and romaine etc.
The key to using these successfully is to constantly rotate and mix them, and to supplement them with other fresh, high fibre items. Do not rely for extended periods upon one type alone. Variety is extremely important. If you only have one or two tortoises, buy different bags on different days. If you have more, then buy several different varieties and mix them.
Avoid mixes containing root vegetables (carrot, beetroot, etc.) or fruits (bell peppers, tomato, etc.) as these are not suitable for Mediterranean tortoises. A small amount of dark green leaf vegetables can be safely added from time to time, however. For example, curly kale or collard greens.
This general green, leafy base can then be supplemented with a surprising range of interesting and highly nutritious ingredients that you can grow for yourself, either in a mini-greenhouse or indoors, and use as available. Some of our favourites include:
Hibiscus flowers and leaves
Nasturtium flowers and leaves
Gazania flowers and leaves
Bellis daisy flowers
Buddleia leaves and flowers
Pineapple sage flowers
Rose geranium flowers
Dandelion leaves and flowers
Marigold and Calendula flowers
Many of these will grow even in winter in sheltered spots, in greenhouses, or in pots or trays in the house. The photos seen here were taken in our garden in December, and Calendula, Fuschia, Osteospermum, Petunia, Roses and several others on this list were still in flower. In other spots, there were still some dandelion, Buddleia leaves clover and sow-thistle to be harvested. Even after a hard frost and snows it doesn’t take long before some of the hardy flowering weeds begin to reappear.
It is absolutely critical that you do not buy flowers for winter feeding from garden centres or florists and feed immediately as these will almost certainly have been treated with highly toxic pesticides. Once washed off well, and grown on a bit however, new growth can be safely harvested from garden centre plants. Flowers from florists (or supermarkets) tend to have much heavier concentrations of toxic pesticides and we would recommend avoiding these completely.
Other things that you can grow include Opuntia cacti (which do well in pots or greenhouses). These can be quite slow to get started, but once established, can
easily attain really impressive dimensions! Pads can be detached from the main plant, allowed to dry until ready to root, and then placed in a pot with sandy compost. You can find a detailed article about growing Opuntia cactus on the Tortoise Trust website.
The only thing we add to this diet for Mediterranean tortoises is a sprinkling of either Nutrobal or Vionate daily. Again, we go for variety here, and out of a seven day regime for adult tortoises we use Nutrobal on three days, Vionate on one day, and the remaining day we leave free of supplements. This ensures a very wide range of trace elements and vitamins are delivered, without any danger of over-dosing.
To better support the higher calcium demand of growing tortoises, juveniles are supplemented daily, use Nutrobal six days (formulated with a slightly higher calcium content) and Vionate (with a wide range of trace minerals) once a week. If you use high output UV-B lamps such as mercury vapour “UV-Heat” type lamps, you might want to reduce the use of supplements containing vitamin-D3 and rely upon pure calcium carbonate instead and ‘natural’ synthesis, though we would recommend providing at least some D3 orally as lamps can be unpredictable.
This highly varied mixed leafy salad base, with the addition of the “weeds” and flowers mentioned makes a very satisfactory indoor maintenance diet. We have used variations on this for many years with excellent results, indeed, we have raised hatchlings on it in long term (five year plus) trials. We therefore feel entirely confident in recommending it as safe and effective.
Tropical forest tortoise variation
For tropical forest tortoises only (Redfoots, Yellowfoots, Hingeback tortoises, etc.) that require a diet that includes soft fruit and some low level of animal protein, we simply that the Mediterranean mix, with flowers (as above) and add in some melon (different varieties), grape, kiwi fruit, papaya, guava, mushroom and banana. The supplementation routine remains the same. One day a week a little dry dog or cat food is soaked and added into the mix in addition.
Grassland tortoise variation
We start again with the Mediterranean mix with flowers as a base, and on a daily basis mix in approximately one third by volume ‘Readigrass’ according to taste. This works extremely well with Leopard tortoises and African Spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata). It is important that no fruit is given to these species.