Cottage Q&A: Protecting turtle nests

A snapping turtle on a turtle nest By Paul Roedding/Shutterstock

Our property has become a favourite egg-laying destination for turtles. Unfortunately, the eggs are being dug up and devoured as a midnight snack by raccoons. Is there anything I can do to protect the eggs and increase their chances of survival?—Dan Bedard, Big Rideau Lake, Ont.

There sure is! You can build a nest protector. The folks at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre recommend a simple 2-by-2-foot frame covered in mesh and staked to the ground. (If your DIY skills are worse than zero, you can also buy one ready-made from the OTCC.) You’ll need to include escape holes for the hatchlings—roughly one by two inches on all four sides of the frame.

The key is using the right mesh—the OTCC recommends hardware cloth. It lets in the right amount of light. Too much shade, and the cold temperatures that result can make the eggs infertile, says Sue Carstairs, the OTCC’s executive and medical director. “And that would defeat the purpose of protecting the nest.”

The hardest part of protecting a turtle nest is “knowing if you’re protecting the right area,” says Carstairs. Mama-to-be turtles are very choosy about where to dig and will sometimes make test holes. A female may start to dig (very…slowly…) then give up after a while; find another spot, dig a little, give up again; find a third spot, dig, give up. Then—plot twist!—come back to that spot and keep digging. Make up your mind, lady.

“It could take a whole day of observation,” says Carstairs. And it won’t be exciting. (Someone should probably replace the expression, “It’s like watching grass grow” with, “It’s like watching a turtle dig a hole.”)

Once Mom lays her eggs, covers them, and leaves, you can install the nest protector. Monitor it over the next several weeks, and remove any vegetation that could block the exit holes

Turtle eggs—they’re laid in June—typically hatch around August. “You’ll know,” says Carstairs. “There will be a little hole in the dirt.” If the summer comes to an end and no turtles have emerged, don’t dig up the nest. “People think, ‘Something’s wrong, we must rescue them,’ ” says Carstairs. But that’s a mistake. (It’s also illegal.) Some species overwinter in the nest and don’t come out until spring; the timing of turtle hatching is variable, says Carstairs. 

 Regardless of when the babies enter the world, “it is legal to help them to the nearest water body,” says Carstairs. If Mother Turtle chose her nest correctly, that should be somewhere marshy, not a rushing river. 

Place the hatchlings in a Tupperware container and carry them to the water. Your work is done. No, really, it’s done—no matter how badly you want to take these wee babies to a turtle rescue centre. That would be interfering. And it’s not necessary. “They have to be babies at some point,” says Carstairs. For more info on protecting turtle nests, and tips on how to make your property turtle-friendly, visit ontarioturtle.ca.

Got a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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