Terrapins may not be considered the most common pet. Even so, there are more than 600,000 terrapins in British homes.
Terrapins became trendy with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies in the 1990s, when people got more interested in them. Many were intrigued and bought small terrapins as pets.
Terrapins, however, grow big. While they look small and cute when they are tiny, they can grow to the size of a dinner plate. Many terrapin owners found their terrapins required more space, larger aquariums, and more attention.
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In an understandable but nevertheless mistaken act, some terrapin owners released their terrapins in the wild, with the thought they would be happier there. Unfortunately, terrapins are not adapted to British weather conditions and find it difficult to adapt to cool climates.
Even so, some did adapt. It is estimated there are currently over 4,000 terrapins in the wild, mainly in London where the human population is dense and more terrapin owners reside.
Pets in the UK
We Brits love pets, as demonstrated by the fact there are more than 13 million dogs and 12 million cats in the UK, followed by birds, rabbits, pigs, hamsters, terrapins, snakes, and lizards.
55% of pet owners live in cities, which could explain why most terrapin sightings in the wild have been observed in urban environments.
In addition, there are 17 million households with at least one pet—a whopping 62% of total households, with many households housing more than one pet.
This is another potential reason why terrapin owners sometimes release their terrapin into the wild. With more animals to take care of and as terrapins grow large, some terrapin owners think it’s best if they liberate their terrapins in ponds and creeks.
Terrapins in the UK
As far as terrapins are concerned, it is estimated that 1.4% of British households own a terrapin. Terrapins have a long lifespan, which usually hovers between 20 and 50 years if they live in favourable weather conditions.
This suggests that the terrapin population should not decrease dramatically in the foreseeable future. If most people adopted their terrapins in the 1990s and 2000s, it is safe to assume that their terrapins still have quite a few years of happy living ahead of them.
How many terrapins in the wild?
It is hard to imagine, but up until 8,000 years ago, the British shores were home to terrapins. Climate change slowly led to terrapins migrating to milder climates as temperatures around Britain became too cold for their survival.
Nowadays, terrapins found in the wild in the UK come from terrapin owners who released their pets. It is very difficult to estimate how many these feral terrapins are, but the safest assumption is that there are 4,000 terrapins in ponds, creeks, streams, and waterways in the UK.
Are terrapins in the wild multiplying?
Terrapins are cold-blooded creatures. They need external heat to keep their body warm. Even summer temperatures in Britain are not helpful for terrapin survival. Terrapins thrive in hot temperatures, where they bask in the sun and dive into nearby waterways to refresh themselves. This is why terrapins need a heat lamp to keep warm.
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In winter, terrapins hibernate. They dig holes in the mud and lie there until it gets warmer. During their hibernation, they consume the fat they stored during summer. If a summer is not warm enough, terrapins probably won’t find enough food to eat and won’t store enough fat to last them through winter.
British temperatures, particularly in winter, are often too low for terrapins. This, combined with less-than-hot summers, means that terrapins find it hard to multiply on British shores.
Are terrapins adapting to British weather conditions?
There are terrapin sightings along waterways, in ponds, and in creeks across the UK. Terrapins have been seen up to Scotland but these populations probably originate from terrapin owners releasing adult terrapins in the wild.
Terrapin specialists point out that we rarely see terrapin hatchlings in the wild. That implies that terrapins rarely reproduce in the wild, probably because the conditions are not favourable.
For terrapins to reproduce, they need 25 degrees Celsius for 60 days. These are weather conditions that are not often met in the UK, not even in the summer.
Interestingly, the mother terrapin doesn’t hatch the eggs. She digs a hole where she deposits the eggs, which are left to hatch on their own—hence the need for warm weather.
While some theorise that terrapins may be slowly adapting to cooler temperatures, there are few signs that this is actually happening.
Since there has been a ban on terrapin sales since 2016, any terrapins that exist in the UK predate the ban (terrapin owners who bought their terrapins before the ban are allowed to keep them until they die of natural causes).
Unless terrapins start multiplying in the wild and adapt to the British climate and waterways, the terrapin population is expected to slowly decline. We also have to bear in mind that current terrapin owners are not allowed to let their terrapins breed, which is expected to further reduce the terrapin population over time.
Terrapin populations in the UK
After the explosion in the terrapin population during the 1990s and 2000s, we can expect a stabilization of their overall numbers until a steady decline occurs in the next decades.
Of course, the legal status of terrapins in the UK could always change, letting people buy them again. The ban was instigated because terrapins are considered non-native and invasive and some scientists worried that they may widely spread across the country.
However, we are currently only seeing individual terrapins in the wild rather than groups of terrapins, which points to released animals from previous owners rather than a local population.
As we learn more about terrapins and how they adapt to novel environments, perhaps we will understand better whether they are truly invasive and damaging to current habitats.
In the meantime, if you would love to give a good home to a poor unwanted pet terrapin, download for free the complete terrapin guide—a complete handbook with everything you need to know about looking after your very own pet terrapin.