THEY are hoping for the best - but say fear the worst.

A Hampshire couple have been left distraught by the theft of their elderly tortoise, who is thought to have been stolen from their back garden.

Fred, who is thought to be up to 100 years old, has been part of their lives for more than three decades.

Scout leader Sue Phelps, 73, and her 86-year-old husband Terence are desperate for news of their much-loved pet.

They have been scouring the area and pushing notes through letterboxes in the hope of finding him.

Neighbours have searched their gardens and staff at a nearby recreation centre with extensive grounds have promised to keep a look out.

Friends of the couple have taken to social media to publicise his disappearance and appeal for sightings.

Sue, of Holbury, said: "Fred is a bit of a character.

"We've had him for more than 30 years, some friends of ours also had him for more than 30 years, and someone else had him before that.

"We think he must be in his late 80s or early 90s and possibly even older.

"Normally I open the back door in the morning and he's there - he'd shout out for food if he could - but he wasn't there on Tuesday and didn't appear.

"The children next door are heartbroken - they used to bring him lettuce and feed him.

"He lives in a pen in the garden and couldn't have got out, which leads me to believe he's been stolen. Whoever did it must have been very quiet. I just hope they love him as much as we do."

A spokesman for the Tortoise Protection Group said tortoise theft was a growing problem.

He added: "All too often we hear of incidents where thieves have entered gardens or outbuildings and stolen tortoises.

"Gardens and sheds are vulnerable to break-ins. Tortoises are sought-after and have some value, all of which make them very attractive to thieves.

"The owner may have had the tortoise for a great many years and to lose a tortoise through theft is heartbreaking."

A Hampshire police spokesman added: "Officers have received a report of a tortoise having been stolen from the garden of an address at Thornbury Avenue in Blackfield.

"Anyone with information should contact Hampshire Constabulary on 101, quoting 44180208559."