Britain’s first giant tortoises: ‘They’ve been around for 200 million years – we’re a blip to them’

Adrian Graham is passionate about his pets, which can live for up to 250 years and grow to the size of a rather tall man.

Many people who are allergic to fur give up on the idea of a pet, but not Adrian Graham. He got his first small tortoise when he was four, but at Chester Zoo, aged seven, he saw giants and it was ‘a light-bulb moment’.

Mr Graham now has 23 giant Aldabra tortoises (as well as small ones), which he takes to county shows for people to admire. The entire wild population, some 10,000, lives on one small island the size of the Isle of Wight near Mauritius. ‘They are doing fine, but if disaster hit Aldabra island, they’d all be wiped out.’

The 6ft-long tortoises, which can live to 250 years old, have never bred in Europe – Mr Graham’s may be the first. ‘They have to be 45 years old before they can breed. Mine are the oldest privately owned in the UK and are from several families, so have different genetics. And it’s only when they reach puberty, aged 20, that you can sex them. You might bring up a pair for 20 years and then find they’re both boys!’

Adrian Graham and his giant Aldabra Tortoises

Most giant tortoises are kept with food and water continually available, but ‘the natural cycle is times of shortage and plenty. Giants can store fluid and fat like camels – they can go 12 months without eating and two months without drinking. I believe they need jeopardy to breed’.

Adrian Graham and his giant Aldabra Tortoises

Mr Graham is hopeful he won’t have long to wait: ‘There was more activity this summer, they were chasing each other around. It’s only a matter of time.’

His giants enjoy six acres of landscaped play areas and temperature-controlled barns, plus a new mud wallow. ‘They’re cold blooded, so need the sun, but above 30˚C they hide in caves or mud.’

Adrian Graham and his giant Aldabra Tortoises

Adrian Graham and his giant Aldabra Tortoises. Photographed at his home in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

Their names range from the noble – Trojan, Samson, Jupiter – to the inevitable: Shelby. They have different characters, more so than small tortoises, and love attention. ‘They stand up as tall as they can and stretch their necks out to have their heads scratched.’

Mr Graham points out: ‘They’ve been around for 200 million years. We’re a blip to them. For me, they’re a passion, and will be until my dying day.’