When Diane and Spencer Hannah set up Herdy, a gift ware range based on the iconic Herdwick sheep breed, it was important they got the launch right. Given the brand’s four-legged inspiration, where better to introduce their business to the world than in the Herdwick enclosure at the North West’s biggest rural event – the Westmorland County Show.
What the couple didn’t bank on was the foot-and-mouth movement ban coming into effect on midnight the night before. Instead of launching amid the hustle and bustle of dozens of Herdwicks and handlers, they ended up showcasing their products to several hundred empty pens.
Thankfully their fortunes on launch day weren’t a sign of things to come, and in five years the brand has grown from just three product lines – mugs, badges and keyrings, all bearing the instantly recognisable Herdy head – to dozens of gift and homeware items, stocked by 300 retailers worldwide.
Spencer and Diane (pictured) aren’t your average sheep people. Seven years ago they were self-confessed “townies”, living and working in Manchester as design consultants, but when they moved to the Lakes in 2003 it didn’t take long to spot a gap in the market.
“The Lake District is one giant shop window, and as visitor you want to take something home with a bit of integrity,” says Spencer.
“Yes, tourists want to see Beatrix Potter, but there’s a modern Lake District too, and that’s going to be crucial for the farming and rural economy to survive and grow. We both have a design background, so we thought, let’s invent a brand for the Lake District.”
The result is Herdy – a cute, loveable character with what Spencer calls “mascot value”. It was designed with clean, crisp Scandinavian principles firmly in mind and plenty of teddy bear appeal. Think IKEA meets Peter Rabbit.
The brand was an instant hit and Herdy’s ever-growing army of fans is a testament to the appeal of the design. Customers have been known to bake herdy cakes, design and make their own herdy tapestries, knit hoodies for their favourite herdies and post up pictures of all their creations on the Herdy UK Facebook page.
“Last year we ran a little competition on Facebook offering a free keyring for the first person who could knit us a Herdwick,” says Christina Smith, who manages customer relations and PR. “It took 10 minutes for the first picture to come in.”
More customers mean more staff, and the company now employs seven people across distribution, warehousing, design, administration and to run their flagship store in Grasmere. Their products have been used as TV props in the BBC’s Junior Masterchef programme and the brand has even been presented with a business award by the Prince of Wales, but you won’t find any aggressive business practices behind their enviable growth record.
Spencer and Diane have expanded the business “carefully, gently and organically” with one eye firmly fixed on the people and Lakeland landscape which are central to their success. And one responsibility they feel particularly strongly is to the local Herdwick farmers who inspired the brand in the first place.
“Farmers are unsung heroes in places like Cumbria, and we need to make sure corporate social responsibility is woven into our policy to recognise this,” said Spencer.
Every year a percentage of the business’s profits is ploughed back into the rural economy via the “herdyfund”, which provides grants and funding to promote the conservation of the Herdwick breed and upland fell farming in Cumbria and The Lakes.
Last year the fund bought 60 livestock hurdles for the Buttermere Show and Shepherd’s Meet, after theirs were swept away by severe flooding in 2009. The fund has also awarded a grant of £1,000 to the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association to buy a hand held EID scanner. The technology will help the association as they build up a comprehensive database of thousands of Herdwick sheep spread across hundreds of hill farms.
Associated industries in the area are also feeling the benefit. The original Herdy mug is still the business’s bestseller, but an increasing number of their products incorporate wool – a product the couple are passionate about.
Typically Herdwick wool is confined to a carpet fibre – too coarse and rough to wear on the skin – but Herdy pioneered a unique yarn which blends Herdwick wool with lambswool. The end result was soft enough to create a collection of 100% wool rugs and throws.
“In the wool world combining the two fibres could be considered a bit of a crime, but it demonstrates that it can be done,” says Spencer.
“The wool industry is a skeleton of what it was in its heyday. Prices paid to farmers for Herdwick wool in recent years have been as low as 5p per fleece, while the cost of shearing is approximately 80p per animal. We want to make the best possible use of wool by creating woollen products with modern appeal.”
The Herdy shop in Grasmere.
Equally important for the design conscious pair is that the fabric doesn’t look too rustic or homespun. “We’re a design-led brand and that is still our number one agenda,” insists Spencer, “so it was important to us that these products look just at home in a shop in London as they do up here in Grasmere.”
Although the herdy company is, and always will be, rooted in the Lakes, 10-15% of tourists to the area are international, and herdy isn’t just going home in their suitcases as souvenirs. As of last year the brand is becoming available to buy overseas, starting in Japan.
“It’s a small audience, but the Japanese love herdy,” says Spencer. “We found a retailer – a 150-year-old stationary business – and we’re now stocked in their Tokyo store, across the road from Cartier!”
For years Peter Rabbit was on the National Curriculum in Japan, but if the brand takes off, the next generation of children might grow up with a completely new British mascot – a hardy, fellside sheep called herdy.
Herdy has teamed up with stop-motion animator David Brown to create a series of quirky videos. Watch a family of herdies making a great escape for the hills below.
Setting up a small business in a rural area comes with its own challenges. Here are Spencer and Diane’s top five tips
1. Do what you love and are passionate about because you’ll be spending a lot of time doing it.
2. Set out a clear plan of what you want to achieve and put a time line against it.
3. Sort out any legal or tax issues. It’s far easier to start off on the right foot than sort out a mess afterwards.
4. Invest in design to make your business look professional.
5. Don’t forget about your own needs for some rest and play time. You need time away from your business to maintain perspective.