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Kate Barlow - Passionate wildlife conservationist and explorer

30 November 2015

By Kate E. Jones

My amazing friend Dr Kate Barlow, who has died unexpectedly after a short illness aged 44, was a leading figure in wildlife conservation, a passionate advocate for bats and bat conservation worldwide, and a lover of adventure.

Kate in August 2015 on a Gloucestershire pub walk

After graduating from Trinity Hall University of Cambridge in Natural Sciences in 1992, Kate further developed her passion for conservation by volunteering for the Surrey Wildlife Trust, and in particular learning about bats in the UK under the guidance of bat guru Frank Greenaway. She started her professional wildlife conservation career the following year where she began a PhD at Bristol University with Prof. Gareth Jones investigating the ecology and behaviour of the UK’s smallest bat, the pipistrelle. Although perhaps one of the longest studied bats in the world, there were many things that just didn’t make sense about this species. For instance, it seemed to use two very different types of echolocation calls to orientate and find food. Kate’s research set out to discover just what was different about these two ‘phonic types’. Her work demonstrated a clear separation in the way that they behaved and interacted with their environments. Kate’s work led directly to the discovery that pipistrelles were in fact two very different species; to all intents and purposes only distinguishable by the pitch of their voices (they are now called the soprano and common pipistrelles). As fellow PhD students, Kate and I formed a lasting friendship during this time and bonded especially at the bat conferences (bat biologists can party like no one else).

Three UK pipistrelle species. From left to right: a soprano, common, & Nathusius' pipistrelle.Kate loved adventures. She had explored the Columbian rainforest for bats on three undergraduate expeditions whilst at Cambridge and of course it wasn’t long after finishing her PhD that she was off again, this time exploring the West Indies for bats, chasing hurricanes, writing a book for the Royal Geographic Society on bat field techniques (which is still the go-to-guide many years on), and then taking up a position at the British Antarctic Survey to study penguins in Antarctica in 1997.  Woah - penguins in Antarctica? Clearly bats weren’t her only passion. Kate spent two years at the other end of the planet at the British base on Bird Island in the Antarctic Ocean, becoming the Base Commander, and the first woman to have ever over-wintered at the base. I think all her friends were secretly in love with her - her wild sense of adventure, her red motorbike, her twinkling astonishingly blue eyes, her kindness. I burst with pride over her achievements, oh and that she’d managed to smuggle part of an iceberg home in her luggage on her return from Bird Island to use as ice in the mojitos she made for us. Antarctic ice crackles when you put it in cocktails, and people still talk about that party. 

My cartoons of our trip to Puerto Rico, West Indies in 1999. Kate is the one with the freckles, with her field assistants Nancy Jennings (red top) and me (dark hair) amongst other friends and colleagues.

Kate spent the next few years as an ecological consultant in Edinburgh, until she started working for The Bat Conservation Trust in 2008 as Investigations Officer. Kate took up the directorship of the UK’s National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP) at Bat Conservation Trust the following year. The programme engages a network of thousands of citizen scientists all over the country to monitor the status of bat populations. Over the next few years, Kate presented the results from the National Bat Monitoring Programme to the UK Government and to experts all over the world, and helped to set up bat monitoring and other bat conservation projects in many other countries (for example, USA, Hungary, South Africa). In 2014 Kate led the publication of the first peer-reviewed paper on the NBMP, which presented UK species population trends and assessed results from the first 15 years of data of this key programme. Kate eventually settled into life in a cosy cottage in Ruscombe near Stroud making good friends and enjoying her beloved Gloucestershire countryside (and the less beloved commute into London), with a rather large and very crazy addition in tow – her dog Laika. In early 2015, Kate moved onwards and upwards to a job at Earthwatch as Head of Engagement and Science, where further exciting opportunities lay in store for her in global wildlife conservation.

We are all so devastated she has gone, so suddenly, so tragically. Selfishly perhaps, I wonder what I am going to do without her sense of adventure, her kindness and her compassion in my life. As the shock gradually starts to subside, I am just grateful to have known such an amazing woman who inspired me to become the person I am and gave so much to me, and everyone else whose life she touched.

Katherine Elisabeth Barlow, wildlife conservationist, bat biologist, explorer and sometime penguinologist, born 5th Dec 1970, died 23rd Nov 2015.

If you would like to share your memories or pictures of Kate please email comms@bats.org.uk. We can also pass on cards to Kate's parents, Chris and Sue Barlow. Please send these, C/O Bat Conservation Trust, Quadrant House, 250 Kennington Lane, London. SE11 5RD

Kate & Laika (c) Dean Waters

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