As tortoises begin to emerge  sleepily into the bright spring, their owners are being warned to lock them up and install CCTV in the garden because thefts soared last year. ‘Rare pets mean top prices, and that’s the lure,’ explains John Hayward, co-ordinator of the National Theft Register. He advises tortoise owners to take detailed photographs of their animals and have them microchipped.

Tortoise charities say the Government has failed to halt the growth of illegal imports, apparently chiefly from Slovenia; the Tortoise Protection Group is to present Defra with a petition to ban imports (www.tortoise-protection-group.org.uk).

The increase in thefts has coincided with the animals being given a UN priority ranking as an endangered species. Now, those that are more than 10cm in length have to be microchipped and can’t be sold legally without a certificate saying they were bred in captivity. This has increased the value of varieties such as Hermann and spur-thighed, which sell for up to £165. Defra’s Nevin Hunter reports: ‘They come in thousands at a time, and we suspect a large proportion come in illegally. We’ve come across a lot of forged paperwork.’

The Tortoise Trust adds: ‘We have serious doubts about the true origin of some of these animals. We are also concerned at the manner in which they are shipped via networks of “distributors” and dealers, many of whom falsely claim to be breeders, and at the growth in internet sales of live animals. We totally oppose this practice.’

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