action-story | 10th May, 2016

Melinda Shepherd

Armed with spotlights, raw enthusiasm and even painted faces – the townsfolk of Benalla joined a not-so-stealthy search one night last year looking for native animals.

ActionStory_Melinda shepherd heroChildren and adults alike stalked the banks of Lake Benalla to document and discover more about the native animals that call the area home.

The nightime spotlight event was a huge success and has since been repeated as part of an urban environment program that has captured the town’s imagination.

The Rakali project – named after the native rat found in the lake – is helping Benalla residents understand the importance the waterway plays in the community and the need to protect it.

Project officer Melinda Shepherd, who lives just a minute’s walk from the lake, started work a year ago after being won over by the early stages of the project, launched by the Benalla and District Environment Group.

“I was concerned about the environment and knew I wanted to get involved. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t want to be the type of environmentalist that chained themselves to trees – not really my style. But this was a way for me to raise environmental concerns in a structured, reasoned way.”

Melinda, a former teacher, said the project aims to raise public awareness about Benalla Lake – which is part of the Broken River – and the need to keep it healthy and thriving.

“It focuses on water health from an urban perspective – which is a little different to a lot of environment projects in the region which are based around farm work.”

“The Rakali were chosen as an icon for the project because people relate to the animals and they were commonly seen around town. A thriving native animal population is a good outward sign for the health of the lake.”

Two years on the ongoing project has featured:

  • several spotlighting evenings – including guest speakers and sausage sizzles
  • a sustainable gardening session linking garden practices to the health of the lake, covering water conservation, weed control and pesticides use
  • water quality activities run by Waterwatch
  • a series of activities with Benalla East Primary’s middle school students
  • mapping community sightings of platypus in the Lake

Melinda said people felt a strong pride in the local animals that are spotted by the lake.

“A lot of people are concerned that we don’t see as many platypus in the area anymore and that even the rakali numbers seem to be dropping. They’re still there, but we don’t see them as often as we used to and that’s got people thinking and caring about the health of the Lake.”

“We’re lucky that the lake is right in the centre of town and is such a focal point for community events, recreation and our landscape. It’s often what draws people to the area and is a real social hub for the town.”

“But we have to do all we can to keep it in good health otherwise the community will lose one of its best assets.”

Story by Tracey Cheesman