He is well remembered for being able to reduce Tisbury to a quivering wreck when we visited. Simply by nonchalantly approaching us and coming tantalisingly close – at which point I would have to cling on determinedly to Tisbury (who would literally be shaking and quaking in suppressed excitement by this stage) in order to stop him from snatching a ‘taste’ of tortoise as he passed by… supposedly blissfully unaware of his magnetic charm and appeal (although I have my own thoughts about this).
My friend Mary has a tortoise called Rocky. (“He kind of looks like one (a rock)… and it’s short for Rocket, (obvious pun there)”). When she talks about him it is clear that he is a huge part of her life and has an equally huge personality!
I asked Mary to describe how he came into her life
“I was with a colleague of mine on some kind of work expedition and we drove past a sort of hardware shop in a small village somewhere about 22 years ago and we saw this box full of straw and it was full of tortoises… and then we realised they were wooden tortoises and they weren’t real at all… but that got us thinking and we thought wow! How cool would it be to have an actual tortoise, like being a dude in your garden!”
“So off we went and I didn’t really think any more about it.. then a few weeks later my colleague, Debbie, said ’I found a place where you can buy tortoises!‘ – we had had a big conversation about how you didn’t see them for sale anywhere and so she had found this family down in Dorset, on the outskirts of Poole who had a clutch of baby tortoises for sale!
So I looked it up, and decided yes! I am going to buy a tortoise. I drove to Dorset and met this family and there were about 20 or 30 baby tortoises. Three parents -2 females and 1 male and I chose number 12! (he had number 12 painted on his back in white emulsion paint).”
How did you decide on number 12?
“Number 12 was male. I wanted a male. I can’t remember why but for some reason I did. And the guy who was selling them said that the males tended to be slightly higher and the females are flatter. Number 12 was nice and tall!”
“So number 12 came back home with us in the car. We lived in East London at the time so we came up the A3 and crossed over London Bridge and I remember holding him up so he could look at the view – its one of my favourite views looking across to Tower Bridge when you cross London Bridge.”
He was so small that all of his four feet could rest on the palm of my hand
“We had to keep him in the house because for the first year or so its not good for them to hibernate. So he was in this little box with a glass window and a heat lamp so he could bask under the heat of the lamp and warm himself up.
He geo-charts his territory
“The first few days we had him I felt terrible because from what I know about when animals are distressed is that they pace… and the first thing this tortoise did when we put him in this hand crafted, lovingly prepared box, was pace. He went up and down at the back, he went up and down at the side, he did it again and I thought Oh No! He is distressed! And then he never did it again!”
“Then when he first went out in the garden he did exactly the same thing – he paced up and down and around the border.. and then we realised he was basically geo-charting his territory and that once he had paced it out (they have a very good sense of smell) you could pick him up from where he had been and put him down somewhere else and he would sniff in two directions, he would know exactly where he was and off he’d go!”
Does Rocky have any favourite food?
“I think like most tortoises, he goes for anything red. So strawberries, tomatoes, cherries… but obviously I don’t feed him such delicacies all the time, he just has to put up with weeds. A lot of tortoises diet is weeds… dandelion, vetch, sour thistle.. bring it on!”
I am the only person I know who encourages weed growth in their lawn.
“My old garden was very small so I used to be the mad woman of Mile End Park and I would go off foraging for things for him to eat. People used to see me foraging and come to me with offerings – they didn’t know what I was picking or why, but they would bring me random leaves as a gift and to contribute!”
He does do proper grazing
“Now I have a larger garden and I don’t need to forage because I have spent the last 5 years cultivating as many weeds as possible! I am also too lazy now to forage for weeds in the wild…
Sometimes I will give him a bit of red cabbage or normal cabbage, but I don’t really need to give him that even, because if he was starving and not getting enough food in the garden, he would scoff them all up – but he tends to leave them after a couple of mouthfuls and move on to the next thing. He does do proper grazing! He’ll have a bite of that dandelion and then move along and have a bite of another dandelion.”
Ever since he was tiny he has absolutely loved campanula
“Campanula is one of my favourite garden plants… and I came home from work one day and he literally froze at 45 degrees half in and half out of this patch of campanula which was one thing that I had planted for myself which wasn’t a weed! Now I have to grow any campanula in pots or higher raised beds but there is video footage of him with his legs and front feet in the campanula pot!”
He will be 22 in October 2020
“He is fearless! Although in the old garden we used to get foxes and if he smelt a fox or heard a dog coming (except Tisbury that is…) at that point he would put all his feet in and all his head in with his big forelegs at the front and keep very still. He is desperate to approach the cat and meet the cat but the cat has a ‘Rocky radar’ and even if she’s fast asleep she will leap up to get out of his way! She sniffs him when he is asleep though!”
The hotter the day is the faster he moves“.
“He is very territorial and if you are in his way he does a sort of – well imagine him putting his legs out really far in front of him and then pulling right back – then he’ll do a sort of karate ‘hoof‘ forwards to rap you on the ankle with the edge of his shell..
He particularly likes to attack you while you are hanging out the washing or other such tasks.
So sometimes if he is getting too annoying or feisty I put a hat on top of him and he takes a while to get himself out.. gives me time to finish what I was doing!”
He is in my Will because he will probably outlive me.
“As long as I look after him properly he will outlive me. He puts himself to bed at night he hibernates by himself – I couldn’t find him last winter – he just found a spot and dug under. And that was it until April! I had no idea where he was! I even got a friend to come round with his dog to try and sniff him out which didn’t remotely work!”