DEVASTATED members of a Hampshire project which provides work for disabled people were today counting the cost after thieves stole vital gardening equipment.

More than £1,500 of tools were stolen from a lock-up used by members of Branching Out - a scheme paid for by European grants which enables disabled people to work on gardening projects across Southampton.

Just over a month ago, the men and women with learning disabilities clinched a £25,000 ground maintenance contract for Western Community Hospital. The flagship contract was the latest in a long line of projects which Branching Out had undertaken in the city during the last three years.

Members of the scheme, which is based at Nutfield Court in Southampton, also help to maintain gardens and grass verges in Shirley for elderly and vulnerable residents as part of the Outer Shirley Regeneration Scheme.

Now, staff fear that the project will lose vital revenue until replacement equipment, including four lawn mowers and a hedge trimmer, can be found.

Ross Lillywhite, Branching Out manager, appealed to the thieves to return the equipment. He added that the group would be borrowing tools from city parks and gardens bosses at the end of next week as a temporary solution until they could replace the stolen mowers.

Cash to pay for the new mowers would have to come out of the project's annual £40,000 budget. Mr Lillywhite said: "We will not be able to do any grass cutting until we replace the equipment.

What the theft means is that we have to find another £1,500 before we can do anything. Two-thirds of our budget comes from the city council and we raise a third ourselves with contracts. Most of the money goes towards maintaining buildings and paying staff. Money is very tight."

A spokesman for Hampshire police said: "All burglaries are very serious crimes but this is clearly a callous act which will have a serious impact on all the people at Branching Out."

Anyone with information about the theft should call Mr Lillywhite on 023 8077 2596.