Turtles flee farm in Chattooga County

photo Turtle farmer David Driver looks over his turtle pond on Wednesday in Summerville, Ga. Driver says he is one of three turtle farmers in the state.

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. - They may move slowly, but some 1,600 turtles have run off from a turtle farm outside Summerville.

Turtle grower David Driver called the Chattooga County Sheriff's Office last week to report fences made of metal barn siding had been torn down around his turtle ponds on Harrisburg Road.

"It's been going on all summer long," Driver said Wednesday.

The breaches in the ponds' perimeter have allowed turtles - all native species such as common snappers, Eastern paints and yellow-bellied sliders - to break free and make a beeline to nearby ponds and creeks.

Driver thinks vandals may be to blame.

"It was pranks, is what it was," he said Wednesday.

It's no laughing matter to him, though, since Driver has lost most of the nest of adult turtles he's trapped over the past four years.

"There was about 2,200 over there. We lost 1,600 of them," he said.

That's a blow to Driver's business, because he depends on the adults to lay eggs in the dirt around the fenced ponds that his family digs up to be hatched in a climate-controlled shed.

Once the baby turtles hatch, Driver sells some to pet-growing operations in Florida; others he air-freights to China, where they're destined for the dinner table.

"They raise the soft shell and the snappers just like we do chickens here," he said.

Each baby snapping turtle sold to China is worth $7 - down from $14 a year ago.

"This has been the worst year. The price has dropped," Driver said.

Snappers lay 25 to 70 eggs, but only once a year, he said. Other breeds might lay four times in a mild summer, Driver said.

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Few turtle farmers

Turtle farmers are a rare breed.

"There's only three of us in the state of Georgia," Driver said.

He got into the business four years ago as an offshoot of the pest-control trapping he's done for years.

"Both my granddads trapped. They did it for the fur," Driver said. "I was actually trapping turtles for people to eat for a while."

Another Summerville-area turtle farmer helped show Driver the turtle-raising ropes.

The phrase "cottage industry" fits Driver. Along with pest control and turtle farming, other enterprises that Driver, his wife and daughters undertake include growing cantaloupes to sell to area restaurants and markets and raising competition feist, or squirrel dogs.

One reason Driver said his four turtle ponds on Harrisburg Road have been vulnerable is that he and his family have been busy moving to a new location about five miles east of Summerville.

One bright spot for Driver is that neighbors who've heard of his plight have stepped forth with offers of free turtles.

"Everybody's calling, saying, 'I've got turtles. Come get mine,'" he said.

If someone has a turtle that needs to be trapped, Driver will come do take it free of charge and put it in the pond he's recently dug behind his new home.

The sheriff's office is investigating the fence destruction as a possible scrap metal theft, since a tailgate from Driver's 1973 Jeep also disappeared.

"We'll be looking to the scrapyards for the Jeep tailgate," sheriff's Investigator Matt Hayes said.

Hayes allowed that there was a comical aspect to turtles fleeing a farm.

"Packs of wild turtles running rampant in the Harrisburg area. Be advised," he joked, before turning serious.

"At the end of the day, it's a theft," Hayes said. "It's hard enough to make it without somebody taking stuff."

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