top of page

The outdoor enclosure

Much has changed in the way my animals are kept as a result of my travels to the Mediterranean turtle biotopes.

The former shoebox, the occasional run out on the large meadow, unfortunately also tied to a string, has become a manageable, fenced, well-structured wildlife enclosure for tortoises that is as close as possible to the natural habitat.

Außengehege mit Schildkrötenhaus im zeitigen Frühjahr.

New "graveled" enclosure in early spring.

Of course, such an enclosure in our latitudes can only be an imitation of nature and not an intact natural habitat.

With the appropriate technical equipment, however, it certainly represents the most optimal keeping of European tortoises in human care.

Today everyone who keeps these threatened and therefore protected wild animals should have such an enclosure.

The keeping of European tortoises is not appropriate to the species without such an open-air enclosure and therefore also not in the interests of animal welfare.

Anyone who has ever been able to observe these active animals in nature knows that keeping them in a terrarium is to be rejected.

Before you plan a largely natural and therefore species-appropriate outdoor enclosure, you should first know what is natural for our tortoises and what is species-appropriate. Please inform yourself about this on my homepage or  in my books . Here I have described the way of life and the natural habitat of the European turtles in great detail and with many pictures.

Some thoughts about location and size are needed before actually building. In most gardens this will happen by itself because there is simply no other option than to set up the enclosure in this or that vacant place. Nevertheless, we should provide the sunniest place in our garden for the absolutely light and heat-controlled turtles.

If this is not possible in individual cases, please make sure that the morning sun is much more important than the evening sun.

Otherwise the turtles will become active too late in the day because they cannot bring themselves to their metabolic temperature early in the morning, as in nature.

The size of the enclosure depends on the number and, first of all, on the size and age of the turtles.

There is no useful norm here. Two adult tortoises certainly still feel locked in with an enclosure size of 10 square meters, so that, in my opinion, an enclosure for adult European tortoises should by no means be smaller than 30 square meters. The bigger the better.

Of course, a larger enclosure can also be set up much nicer, more varied and, above all, more natural.

Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege

An outdoor enclosure for hatchlings and young animals should initially be smaller and, so to speak, grow with the animals.

Otherwise the little turtles would hide so well in a large enclosure that the keeper would not find them for a long time.

Altes Jungtiergehege
Altes Jungtiergehege

Keep in mind that tortoises are wild animals and live with us in captivity. For us, this should not mean that we should also keep the animals captive. What I mean by that is that every single animal needs a certain amount of space to feel comfortable.

It is only through this free space that tortoises behave largely naturally, even in captivity, they do not constantly walk dull along the fence and make us happy with their lively, curious and lively behavior.


Ultimately, that's the reason why we keep turtles in the first place.

Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege

However, in my opinion, for a better overview in the enclosure, there are also upper limits to the size. In an outdoor enclosure of several 100 square meters, the animals are difficult to observe and are also downright “lost”.

Turtles are also exposed to various dangers here. Not just by rats, martens or larger birds, for example.

In the transitional periods or during longer periods of bad weather, which we also regularly encounter, the turtles cool down to the ambient temperature.

At correspondingly low temperatures, the turtles are rigid and no longer able to seek shelter in the cold frame or greenhouse.

The animals bury themselves in the enclosure and have to wait there until they can warm up again when the next exposure to sunlight occurs.

The keeper must be able to intervene here and, if necessary, carry the turtles back to their shelter. In an enclosure that is too large, finding these animals is certainly very time-consuming or not possible at all.

Gehege eines Freundes
An der Gehegemauer
Gehegeumrandung einer schweizer Freundin

The enclosure

How do we design the enclosure and what kind of material is suitable?

The enclosure fence should not be an obstacle for the turtles, but should protect their roaming area as such. A straight board wall or wall is always perceived as annoying by the turtles. The turtles will always run back and forth on such a bare, straight, uninterrupted enclosure, looking for a passage or even trying to climb over the obstacle.

Once the turtles have decided on a certain direction, the animals do not know any obstacles. They use the straight path and try very persistently to climb over everything. However, if we interrupt the enclosure by adding stones, roots, small mounds of earth, depressions and suitable planting and even make the enclosure itself arch-shaped, the turtles will not see it as a prison wall, but rather as part of their habitat for most of the time.

We cannot prevent males' urge to migrate in search of a female and the innate migratory behavior of females in search of a suitable egg-laying site, but we can make it much more varied and interesting for the turtles.

Of course, by the way, a curved frame also fits more attractively into a house garden than a square, separated box.

Various materials are of course suitable for this enclosure, provided they are not transparent. Wire mesh is also unsuitable because the turtles, like transparent material, do not recognize it as an obstacle. The animals try to run through it constantly and with persistent perseverance.

Because of the heat storage, stone or concrete walls are by far the best material. The stones do not necessarily have to be bricked, but can also be placed dry on top of one another.

But I think that an enclosure is not only built for a short period of time, but also for many decades, depending on the age of the turtles.

The enclosure on the inside of the enclosure should be around 30 or 40 cm high, depending on the type of turtle being kept.

I consider it necessary to sink the enclosure into the ground, if at all, only in the case of narrow enclosures such as wooden boards, in enclosures that are too small or in the case of the heavily burrowing four-toed tortoise. Otherwise, in a well-structured, sufficiently large enclosure, no European tortoise digs its way under the enclosure. The animals soon regard the enclosure as their home area and feel comfortable, provided that no changes or alterations are made constantly.

For the tortoises, which are very much tied to their area of activity, renovation measures are always associated with stress and can be compared with tearing them out of their traditional area of life.

A wall or other enclosure protects against wind and keeps the heat stored in the stony, sandy soil in the enclosure longer.

For this reason, an enclosure that is level with the garden level and protected by a ditch is only suitable if the enclosure is otherwise protected from the wind.

Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege eines schweizer Schildkrötenfreundes

What should the floor of a turtle enclosure be like? In my opinion, it is precisely the soil that deserves the greatest attention. Here you should orientate yourself back to nature. In the wild, European tortoises generally live in biotopes with very stony and often very sandy soils. This has several advantages. Stones and sand are excellent heat stores. When heated by the sun, these materials slowly release the heat to the surrounding air.

After a rain, the stony sandy soil on the surface is quickly dry again and not moist for a long time as in our latitudes.

Due to the often prevailing morning dew and the many rainy days, the facility has to be kept relatively free of grass.

Grass retains moisture in the top soil layer for a long time. A sunny day following the rain also cools the enclosure floor through the evaporation of moisture. Basically, moisture does not harm the turtles. In nature, especially in coastal biotopes, dew is also present in the morning. In contrast to what is often the case with us, however, a warm, and usually even hot, sunny day follows in the south. This morning dew is even vital for the turtles in nature in some areas. In our climate, however, the animals do not suffer from too dry but rather from too humid weather.


This is one of the reasons why the enclosure floor has to be prepared in a turtle-friendly way. To do this, it is necessary to remove the garden soil to a depth of at least 20 cm, and even more in the case of rich, loamy soil.

The terrain can be modeled immediately with the excavated material. Depending on the size of the facility, one or more mounds are heaped up and at the same time depressions and paths are formed.

Im Freigehege
Im Freigehege
13 Freiland.jpg
Im Freigehege

The entire enclosure is now filled with a sand / gravel layer of so-called concrete gravel with a grain size of 0-16 millimeters.

It is a material that is used in concrete plants for concreting. The limestone quarry I used is ideal for this. These are crushed limestones from the Swabian Alb, which are also available in a grain size of 0-16 millimeters in some gravel pits. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this excellent material is not available everywhere. In order to create a natural calcareous soil, dolomite lime can also be sprinkled generously on the sand / gravel layer. Dolomite lime is relatively natural and is available inexpensively in gardening shops in 20 kg sacks. A few centimeters of topsoil can be applied to this now heavily calcareous sand / gravel layer. The soil mixes over time and this creates a water-permeable, quickly drying, loose and, above all, barren substrate.

Freigeh. 16.jpg

New "graveled" enclosure in early spring.

I don't cover the limestone quarry with soil. However, this also mixes with the soil below over time. The yellowish color of the enclosure floor prepared in this way alone gives a Mediterranean impression.

Im Biotop
Vorbild Natur
Vorbild Natur
Vorbild Natur Griechenland

In all the turtle biotopes I have repeatedly found the same limestone quarry with a grain size from 0 to rock size.

Vorbild Natur Montenegro
Vorbild Natur
Vorbild Natur Griechenland
Vorbild Natur Bosnien Herzegowina

It is important that the substrate in the enclosure, as in the southern home of our fosterlings, is kept extremely sparse and poor in nutrients.  The forage plants growing there should not grow into juicy calorie bombs, but into nutrient-poor, crude fiber-rich additionally calcareous and therefore very valuable forage plants for our turtles.

What kind of plants are suitable?


The enclosure is planted with bushy growing plants that remain small. Of course, aromatic herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme that spread a Mediterranean flair not only because of their appearance but also because of their scent, but also heather, lavender and all low-growing, non-toxic hedge plants, as well as palm and club lilies, are well suited for this. 

Im Freilandgehege
Im Freilandgehege
Im Freilandgehege
Im Freilandgehege

Wild blackberries, wild wine and hibiscus as well as dog roses are also excellent. The turtles like to eat the flowers, fruits and leaves.

In addition, forage plants and herbs of all kinds are planted and sown throughout the enclosure.

Tortoises love all labiates and butterflies. Small agaves and opuntias not only look southern, they are also eaten with pleasure.

Now a lot of large and small stones, root and tree wood are distributed in the enclosure and the new natural home for our tortoises is almost ready.


The rest is done by nature itself. Various plants and herbs will soon settle there.

However, the pointed grasses should be constantly removed from the enclosure, because it is not a lawn that is desired, but rather a "rock garden" with a large number of herbs and weeds.

It would of course be ideal if the size of the enclosure allowed it to be separated off and only opened from time to time for the turtles to graze.

In this way, the forage plants could not only recover and grow back, but above all mature, which is important for the required crude fiber content.

Plants grown in the enclosure and grazed by the turtles are not only the better food in terms of the ingredients, especially vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids and the high lime content, but also enable the turtle to live out its natural eating behavior as a grazer. I consider this to be very important for the well-being and species-appropriate behavior of the animals.

Im Innengehege
Im Innengehege
Im Innengehege
Im Innengehege

In the wild, turtles do not eat at any feeding place and never a complete plant, but only parts of it, run on and eat another plant.

In nature, tortoises automatically have a varied and balanced diet and put a large part of the energy they absorb into motion and not, as unfortunately often with us, into growth.

A feeding place in the enclosure only serves to make the work of the keeper easier and is not necessary if the animals are kept in a species-appropriate manner.

On the contrary, the turtles get used to this feeding place and eventually stop looking for food on their own, but may still eat while sitting at a feeding trough.

This is no longer a natural tortoise behavior and promotes the far too fast growth of the tortoises, which unfortunately can be observed far too often in captivity.

Additional food should be distributed randomly in the enclosure so that the animals can live out their natural eating behavior here as well.


From the point of view of the turtles, the enclosure should be completely confusing and wildly planted. A turtle running in the enclosure should only have a straight view of a few meters. 

The tortoises have to be able to walk around or over hills at all times. Plants have to stand in the way and stones have to block the straight passage.


Due to the many additional paths, the enclosure is significantly enlarged with the same floor area.

As a result, the turtles do not run into each other all the time and the terrain remains varied and therefore interesting for the animals.


Turtles avoid open and free terrain. You only feel really good in impenetrable thickets.

You have to start from the point of view of the turtles. These move at a height of only a few centimeters above the ground and can thus traverse any thicket relatively freely. There are plenty of sun spots between the plants. 

When kept under the open sky, so to speak, as it is a normal meadow property, the turtles are constantly running restlessly around the fence and trying to break out. An attempt to escape is regularly an indication that the turtles do not feel comfortable in the habitat made available to them and do not recognize it as their home area!

Exceptions are of course females on their innate migration to suitable laying places.

So that you can enter the enclosure better yourself and do not endanger any hidden turtles, distribute larger natural stones in the enclosure so that you can use them as steps.

Im Freilandgehege
Gehege 5.JPG
Gehege 6.JPG
Gehege 2.JPG

In summer the enclosure is overgrown with bushes and plants.

My turtle house and the indoor enclosure


The optimal solution for year-round “free-range” keeping of European tortoises is, in my opinion, a glass house specially built for the tortoises.

The insulation is much more effective, which makes heating easier in the transitional periods.

For this reason, a few years ago I demolished my greenhouse leaning against a wall and placed a glass house on the additionally insulated foundations.

The side walls are bricked. A glass door is built into the right wall. The front consists of normal windows with turn / tilt fittings. The upward sloping roof consists of double-walled sheets.

In the summer months, I hang out the windows on the entire front, so that there is an open room climate.

The turtle house, which is about 20 square meters in size and connected to the central heating, has a room volume of over 50 cubic meters and borders the northwest side of the enclosure.


In the house, the adult animals have an area of around 18 square meters and the young animals have an indoor enclosure with an area of almost two square meters. Through several loopholes, the turtles have the opportunity to go into the outdoor enclosure at any time.

In the indoor enclosure, there are straw-filled hollows on two walls, about five meters long and 40 to 80 centimeters wide, where the animals can bury themselves at night and during rest periods. On the front side, two wooden flaps are attached in front of the hollows for darkening.

In autumn I change the straw for beech leaves in good time and the turtles dig into their usual hiding place to hibernate.

Im Innengehege
Im Innengehege

The floor of the indoor enclosure, which is at the same level as the outdoor enclosure, consists of deep humus garden soil into which some river sand and the limestone quarry I used were incorporated. The surface is solid without encrusting and the animals can dig as deep as they want at any time.

The inner surface towards the rear wall is laid out as a rising hill. Here, too, I planted Mediterranean bushes and interrupted the area with many different sized limestones.

Although the plants have to be watered regularly anyway, I irrigate the entire soil almost daily with water from the watering can so that it does not dry out too much and, above all, there is a microclimate with relatively high humidity inside the house. Due to the connection to the ground with the shelter options, there is also a slightly humid microclimate there.

High humidity is not only very important for healthy growth, but also because of the air-purifying effect on the turtles' respiratory organs.

The rather dry air compared to the Mediterranean is one of the main reasons why some turtles tend to have respiratory problems in our region.

On cool days in the transitional periods and in periods of bad weather or prolonged rainy weather in summer, the turtles can warm up under several 300 watt halogen lamps and bring them up to the required metabolic temperature. The switch-on times are regulated by a thermal timer.

Due to the artificial radiant heat of the halogen lamps, the turtles have the opportunity to compensate for the missing 80 days of sunshine in the Lake Constance area, at least in terms of body heat. Since I installed a large 400 watt HQI floodlight for dark rainy days and the transition seasons that are far too dark for the light-hungry turtles, my turtles are much more active in the transition seasons.

Here you really have to consider that the sun in the Mediterranean area has a much higher radiation intensity due to its much higher position. This not only results in more intense UV radiation, but above all a significantly brighter light. The turtle organism is dependent on this high quality of light and, in the long run, can only function healthily with this light, which is already glaring for us.

Quite apart from the fact that the posture I practice is probably the most natural posture in human care, I have the opportunity to observe and care for my animals at any time, even in rainy weather.

The automatic wintering method, which is most natural for the animals, is also extremely stress-free for me.

Im Innengehege mit Halogenstrahler
Im Innengehege
Innengehege 3.jpg
Unterschlupf im Innengehege
Im Innengehege
Im Innengehege

Only Mediterranean bushes and plants grow in the turtle house.

bottom of page