Unhappy together: turtles dumped in Hackney

Dumped turtles (red-eared terrapins?) in one of the Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, Lon N16 ponds

SPRING IS sprung and the grass is riz — it cannot be long before the sun is also riz. One warm day as you stroll around Hackney you may feel the tingle of excitement and joy as you see a little turtle sunning itself on a bank of one of the many watercourses in the borough.

Unfortunately it is an example of abuse by gullible pet-lovers.

They have been misled by pet shops — the unscrupulous ones, that is — into buying creatures that look cutely small and strikingly colourful but which grow into large, smelly reptiles accustomed to habitats much warmer than the British climate can provide.

Once they grow “too big” they are often dumped in suburban ponds, rivers, streams and canals in the belief that they will survive English winters, even though they come from hot lands. This is partly because some pet traders claims the turtles are from stock bred in this country. Large numbers of so-called captive-bred turtles and tortoises are being put on the London market, often accompanied with fake import documents, despite the 1984 ban on bringing in tortoises, some of them endangered species.

The London Naturalist (TLN) says that “a growing proportion of London’s pet tortoises” is illegally obtained. Hackney and Walthamstow marshes, the River Lee and Clissold Park, where the red-eared turtles shown here were photographed several weeks ago, are common destinations.

The scientific journal reports that the park “has had hundreds of terrapins abandoned there, particularly since 2000”. TLN notes that recent desilting operations to improve conditions in advance of the 2012 London Olympic Games “seems to have given people the idea that conditions are even more suitable now for them” [amphibians]. Turtles are known for their longevity but their death rate within a few years, depending on the prevalence of ice winters, could be 80%.

Once they are spotted in Hackney waters, they become a problem for council parks staff: what to do with them? Over the years some have been sent to the Barbican’s heated conservatory but the borough likes to send them to a non-profit organisation that rehabilitates unwanted turtles/terrapins in one off its re-homing centres in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Co. Durham.

The group’s leader, Wayne Rampling , told Loving Dalston: “We have 61 turtles/terrapins at our home-based centre in Harwich, Essex, and last year alone this centre rescued, nursed to health and rehomed 534.

“Our other two home-based centres currently hold 93 combined and last year alone rehomed a total of 412.”

Red-eared terrapins at Clissold Park 29/03/2012
Red-eared terrapins, and top, at Clissold Park

Asked why the public were often unaware of the cruelty of buying the creatures, none of which is native to the British Isles, he said: “These animals are born small and colourful but soon become not so good to look at. And every time a turtle movie is released, numbers abandoned soar.

“It’s getting busier every year and we are just touching the problem, which is massive, country wide. Yet lack of funds means we can do what we can only with the money we raise by selling pet products.”

A Hackney park keeper, who declined to give his (or her) name, told Loving Dalston that there were five turtles in Clissold Park at present and that some may have bred. Rampling was sceptical (as is  TLN ). “It could be possible,” he said, “but for turtle eggs to hatch in the wild, temperatures need to be spot-on over 90 days, something England is not known for.”

David Altheer 080512

* Update summer 2014: Hackney council has had the turtles removed. At least, it thinks none remains.

* Turtle Rescue Centre has a free fundraising facility: you can raise funds for turtle rescue when you shop on line at Amazon, Ebay, Marks and Spencer, Argos, John Lewis, HMV and other retailers. Press this link.

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