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Fieldwork Handbook

This handbook has been written to help you carry out fieldwork studies in an enjoyable and safe manner.  It is divided into two sections: the first section contains general information which is applicable to all fieldwork; the second section contains information relevant to specific studies.  Please take a few minutes to read the first section, and parts of the second section which are relevant to your studies.


Section 1:  General Information

1.1 Responsibilities

1.2 Clothing

1.3 Communication

1.4 Personal Protective Equipment

1.5 Hazards and what to do about them

      1.5.1 Extreme weather conditions

      1.5.2 Water

      1.5.3 Lack of food

      1.5.4 Animals

      1.5.5 People

      1.5.6 Roads and vehicles

      1.5.7 Plants

      1.5.8 Leptospirosis (Weil's Disease)

      1.5.9 Lyme disease

      1.5.10 Toxic chemicals used in farming

Section 2:  Specific Information

2.1 Lowlands, uplands and mountains

2.2 River crossings

2.3 Woods and forests

2.4 Bogs, swamps, mires and marshes

2.5 Coastlines, estuaries, mudflats and salt-marshes

2.6 Construction sites


Section 1:  General Information


1.1  Responsibilities

Before going on the fieldwork you should:

During the fieldwork you should:

Note: the Course Leader has the authority to exclude from all, or part of, a course any student arriving at the departure point without essential equipment, footwear and clothing.  In addition, any unsociable or offensive behaviour (possibly resulting from drinking alcohol, or the taking of illegal substances) may also result in dismissal from the activity, exclusion from future fieldwork courses, and in extreme cases dismissal from the university. 


1.2  Clothing

British weather is notoriously unpredictable.  Always be suitably clad for the environment and possible extremes of weather in the fieldwork area.  Weather forecasts from the Met Office can be found at

Do not wear jeans either in winter or in summer.  When wet, jeans provide little or no protection against the cold.  Minimal clothing may be permissible in stable conditions of warm weather, so long as the hazards of sunburn and heat-stroke are borne in mind.  However, both warm and rain-proof outer clothing (including over-trousers) should be carried even if not worn.  It is especially important to wear a hat: both in hot weather to prevent sun burn and heat stroke, and in cold and wet weather or cool conditions (e.g. on water, at altitude) to prevent hypothermia.

Footwear should be suitable for the terrain.  Ankle support and good treaded soles are essential as slips may occur on any muddy or rough ground.  In most cases good, strong walking boots are the best footwear.  Well-fitting wellington boots may be preferable for some conditions (e.g. shoreline or stream work).


1.3  Communication

Ensure you have a means of raising the alarm in an emergency.  Some methods of raising the alarm are:

A rescue party’s standard response to the distress call is:

In addition, always ensure that a responsible person knows where you are working and when you expect to return.  This person should be available to raise the alarm should you be delayed.  They should have written notification of your itinerary and alert procedures in case you become overdue.  Whatever system is used it must be cancelled when the fieldwork is completed.

If there is an accident then attend to anyone injured and withdraw remaining members of the group to a safe location.  Send for help – two people where possible – and give information of exact location of party and nature of injuries.


1.4  Personal Protective Equipment

The risk assessment for your fieldwork may specify personal protective equipment is worn.  General information about the various types is given below.

head protection
Protective headgear must be worn where there is a risk of being struck by a falling objects (e.g. visiting building sites, mines, quarries).  Remember that you will not be protected from a large boulder fall.  Safety helmets should be to BS EN 397 standard.

During activities such as rock-climbing, where there is a risk from falling objects, appropriate head protection with chinstrap must be worn.

When there is a risk of hazardous substances ( e.g. chemical splash, dust, gas or molten metal) entering the eye, or a risk of flying objects penetrating the eye suitable eye protection  to BSEN 166 should be worn.

If normal conversation is difficult at a distance of 2 metres hearing protection will probably be required. It can be provided in a variety of different forms:

respiratory tract/lungs
Substances such as dusts, fumes, vapour, gases and micro-organisms can cause significant damage to health and, in extreme cases, death.  If exposure to a hazardous substance cannot be controlled in any other fashion then using appropriate respirators may be the last resort.  Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) includes a very wide range of devices from disposable dust masks to combat dust to self contained breathing apparatus such as that used by the Fire Brigade.  Working in particular environments, for example mines and quarries, or with particular chemicals, e.g. crop spraying may require the use of RPE. 

Gloves of different types can be used to protect against a range of hazards such as extreme temperatures, corrosive materials, toxic chemicals, infection risks, sharp or abrasive materials, solvents and even tools which generate excessive vibration.  

Certain chemicals permeate some types of glove materials and make them either ineffective or quickly outworn.  Some gloves can only be used with certain chemicals for a short time before the material permeates through to the hand, so users need to be made aware of the limitations of such gloves.

Leather gloves usually offer good protection against glass and other sharp materials while chainmail gloves are used when using sharp knives.

Shoes or boots with steel toecaps protect toes against crushing injuries from dropped objects, or from injuries from impact, or being run over by heavy trolleys etc.  Footwear may also incorporate a steel mid sole plate to protect from penetrating injuries.  They should comply with standard BSEN ISO 20345.


1.5  Hazards and what to do about them

1.5.1.  Extreme weather conditions

Weather conditions can change quickly, especially in winter time, and extreme conditions can lead to the following illnesses and injuries:

Hypothermia is caused by a dangerous loss of body heat.  Unless action is taken immediately it can develop rapidly into a life threatening condition.  Symptoms are: shivering, slow and laboured movements, stumbling pace and mild confusion.  The sufferer becomes pale, and lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue.  Severe symptoms include difficulty in speaking, sluggish thinking, and forgetfulness, inability to use hands and stumbling with walking becoming almost impossible, and incoherent or irrational behaviour.

The action to take is to stop and find the best available shelter.  Insulate the casualty against further heat loss until help can be obtained.  Remove wet clothes and replace with dry ones.  Use a survival bag.  Cover the head since this is an area of major heat loss.  If enough people are available, sandwich the casualty between two individuals to conserve heat.  Get help quickly.  If at all possible give a warm sweet drink to the casualty.  Under no circumstances should alcoholic drinks be given.  If there is no significant improvement after a short time then summon help.

heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion can arise from depletion of water or salt in the body.  Symptoms include thirst, fatigue, giddiness, a rapid pulse, raised body temperature, low urine output and severe muscle cramps (if caused by salt depletion).  The action to take is to re-establish the water balance of the body by drinking cool water at a moderate rate to avoid stomach cramp or vomiting, and adding salt to the diet if the person suffers from muscle cramps.

heat stroke
Heat stroke results from a dangerous gain in body heat, and is commonly associated with dehydration.  Symptoms are: disorientation often with severe headaches, feeling hot and dry, ceasing to sweat, noisy breathing and loss of consciousness, lassitude, muscle cramps and vomiting.  It can be fatal.  The action to take is to keep the person still in the shade, and to cool them down by sponging with cool water, wetting their clothing or bathing in a stream or pool. Provide cool water to drink, but keep rate of intake moderate to prevent stomach cramp or vomiting.

sun burn
Over-exposure to the sun can cause sun burn, and also skin cancer.  The risk of cancer varies with skin type, being greatest for fair skins that burn easily.  Cloud cover does not greatly reduce exposure to harmful radiation from the sun, and the risk of overexposure is greatest under windy or cool conditions when the heat of the sun is unapparent.  The action to take is to cover your skin with clothing, especially your head and neck.  Wear long sleeved shirts of tightly woven cotton, with a collar, long trousers and a broad brimmed hat.  Use good quality sun-glasses, and keep in the shade where possible.  Put sun-screen cream on exposed skin.

electrical storms
Being struck by lightning is a very low risk though a few people die every year from lightning strikes.  Action to take if caught in an electrical storm is to move off high ground since lightning strikes are common on mountain ridges, summits and other high points.  Do not shelter under trees, in caves, against a cliff wall, in natural fissures and under boulders since they are natural conduits for lightning.  Retreat to a vehicle if possible, or if this is not possible it is safer to sit out the storm in the open than to seek shelter (e.g. under trees).  Sit on a rucksack with your knees up and hands in your lap.  If you are carrying conducting equipment (e.g. metal poles, other metal items) place these well away from you.

Strong winds can blow you over, or lift you off the ground.  They can cause trees and branches to fall, or damage buildings, roofs and other items causing materials and debris to be blown in the wind.  Action to take if caught in a gale that may cause injury is to find shelter until the wind dies down.  Do not rest or park under mature trees during gales.


1.5.2  Water

Being able to swim does not eliminate the risk of drowning when working in, on or near water (e.g. rivers, lochs, reservoirs).  Except for very shallow ponds, streams and ditches, all work in, on or near water should be regarded as hazardous because of currents, submerged objects and slippery or muddy bottoms.  Where there is a risk of drowning life jackets must be worn that comply with the following BS EN standard:

 In addition to the risk of drowning immersion in water may lead to shock and hypothermia. 

 Water in streams, rivers and ponds should be considered contaminated (e.g. pesticides, herbicides, bacteria, liver flukes) and not fit for drinking.


1.5.3  Lack of food

Tiredness in the field, which sometimes leads to accidents, may be caused by lack of food.  Energy expenditure can be twice an individual’s daily norm.  It is important therefore to eat sufficient food.  A substantial breakfast is a sensible way to start a day in the field.  In remote locations always carry an emergency supply of high energy food and keep the food for an emergency - not for a snack.

It is also important to drink regularly to replace lost water.  All energetic fieldwork, even in cool climates, leads to extra water loss through perspiration.  Carry sufficient drinks and, especially in cool conditions, consider the use of flasks to carry hot drinks


1.5.4  Animals:  wild animals, farm animals, dogs, bees and wasps, snakes, bats and zoonotic infections

wild animals
Generally, wild animals will move away from people if they can.  Any animal which cannot, and feels trapped or threatened may attack so do not encroach upon their territory.  Do not stalk animals, or startle them.  Usually, they will hear you coming and run away.

During rutting season (typically between late September and early November, except for Roe deer which rut between mid July and end of August) avoid aggressive, roaring and territorial stags.  Swans can also be extremely territorial, especially when nesting.  Do not confront aggressive swans: they are more likely to attack than give ground, and can cause serious injury.

farm animals
Many large farm animals, especially horses and young cattle, will approach you out of curiosity.  Usually, this is only a problem if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  If so, avoid situations where you could be cornered.  Most animals will eventually loose interest if you remain stationery.  Gentle discouragement, such as a light tap on the muzzle, sometimes works for the more persistent.  Inquisitive animals will normally give ground if you walk slowly toward them.  If animals are following you too closely stop and face them.  Do not make rapid or violent actions since these may excite animals.

Avoid approaching bulls, aggressive male animals or animals with young. Do not enter a pig enclosure unless accompanied by the farmer.

Generally, dogs will ignore you if you ignore them.  If you come across an aggressive dog stand your ground quietly. Make no gesture towards the dog, and keep your head up looking above the dog though watching it with your peripheral vision.  Do not meet its stare: a stare will be interpreted as aggression.  If a dog persists try a firmly spoken no or sit command.  Otherwise back away gently.

bees and wasps
Bees are unlikely to sting unless annoyed.  Swarms of bees may be frightening, but are unlikely to sting if left alone.  If it is necessary to approach or pass a bee hive do so from behind the bee entrance.

Wasps will sting if they, or their nests, are threatened.  Look out for nests on trees, walls and crags and avoid working nearby.  If you do disturb a wasp’s nest remain perfectly still and wait for wasps to quieten before making a slow retreat.  Only run if you can move fast and have at least a 50 metre clear path.

If stung by a bee try and remove the sting, without squeezing the venom sac.  Either grasp the sting below the sac and pull it out, or scrape the sting off the skin with a knife or finger nail. 

When stung by a bee or wasp, wash the wound as soon as possible and apply a clean dressing.  Use an antihistamine cream or spray.  A sting in the mouth or throat can cause swelling that may lead to difficulties in breathing, and in this case seek medical attention promptly.  Some people are allergic to bee and wasp stings.  If you think you may have such an allergy contact your GP for advice, and inform your course leader.

Adders are the only venomous snake native to the UK.  They are identified by a dark zig-zag on their back with a distinct "V" or "X" shaped marking on head.  Treat adders with respect and leave them alone.

Adder bites can be painful but they are rarely serious.  Adders sometimes bite without injecting any venom.  This is called a ‘dry’ bite and may cause mild pain and anxiety.  If an adder injects venom when it bites it can cause more serious symptoms including: swelling and redness in the area of the bite, nausea, vomiting and faintness.

If a snake bites you, or someone else, you should:

If you, or someone else, is bitten by a snake you should never:

Some species of bats may carry rabies.  Do not handle live or dead bats, and avoid bat roosts.  If bitten by a bat get medical advice immediately.

zoonotic infections
Zoonotic infections are animal diseases that are transmissible to humans.  Although zoonoses are rare, care must be taken when work is closely associated with animals.  The action to take to prevent infection is to wash your hands after handling animals and before eating, and exercise a high standard of personal hygiene.


1.5.5.  People

The risk of being physically or verbally assaulted is very low.  However, to avoid problems you should:


1.5.6.  Roads and vehicles

Take care when crossing roads and alighting from vehicles.  Use pavements and footpaths.  Plan your route to avoid having to walk on roads.  If you have to walk on a road face on-coming traffic and cross to the other side before sharp right-hand bends ( i.e. make sure drivers are able to see you so they can move further out from the verge if necessary) and wear high visibility clothing. 


1.5.7  Plants

There are many species of plant which if ingested are a health hazard such as some berries and mushrooms.  Bracken is known to be toxic and carcinogenic to livestock.  Avoid cutting, handling or working with bracken.  If bracken is handled, wash your hands thoroughly before eating, drinking, smoking or applying cosmetics. 

Toxic blue-green algae is common in many inland waterways.  The algae multiply rapidly (especially in summer) to colour the water green, blue-green or brown.  Symptoms caused by ingestion of contaminated water are vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and flu-like symptoms, and by skin contact are irritation and rashes.  Avoid contact with, or ingestion of, water that contains high concentrations of these algae.


1.5 8 Leptospirosis (Weil's disease)

This is a potentially life-threatening illness caused by bacteria passed from rats and other rodents via urine.  You are at risk if you handle rats or come into contact with material or water contaminated by rat urine.  The risk from water contact is greatest in static water or slow flowing rivers.  The bacteria can survive for considerable periods outside the host in the environment.

The disease starts with a flu-like illness and there may be a persistent and severe headache.  Symptoms may also include vomiting and muscle pains.  Pneumonia and kidney failure may follow.  If caught in the early stages, the disease is usually readily treated with antibiotics.  If left untreated, it can be fatal.

To prevent illness avoid rats, and wash your hands after contact with potentially contaminated materials (e.g. animal fodder, puddles) and always before eating and drinking.


1.5.9 Lyme disease

Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacteria transmitted to people by the bite of sheep ticks, and related species such as deer.  It is becoming an increasing problem, especially for people walking through heathland, woodland, moorland and rough pasture.  It is transmitted when a tick bites an infected animal and later bites a human.

A classic symptoms of the disease is a red ring developing around the bite.  The ring increases in diameter over several weeks as the centre clears.  In addition, symptoms include headache, fever and/or muscle pains rather like flu, and the disease can cause serious illness of the nervous system, joints or heart.

To prevent infection avoid exposure to ticks by covering exposed skin, especially legs (e.g. by tucking trouser bottoms into socks) and use an insect repellent.  Inspect clothing for ticks regularly, and at the end of the fieldwork inspect your body for ticks.  Remove any ticks as soon as possible.   If you find a tick in your skin, remove it gently with tweezers gripping it as close to your skin as possible. Do not grip it by the abdomen or attempt to smother it in Vaseline as these actions may cause it to regurgitate into the bite.  Report any illness to your doctor.  Tell the doctor about the sorts of environments you have been working in.  Tell him/her that you think you may have contracted Lyme Disease.


1.5.10 Toxic chemicals used in farming

Crop sprays may be harmful until they have dried.  Do not enter fields or woodlands which have been spayed recently.  If you can smell chemicals in the air, or see residues, move away.  Stay upwind of spraying operations.  If you are caught in spraying operations, affected by spray drift, or walk in a field that is still wet from spray move away quickly.  Wash any exposed skin and remove contaminated clothing as soon as possible.


Section 2:  Specific Information


2.1 Lowlands, uplands and mountains

Weather conditions on British mountains (especially in winter) can be just as severe, and often more changeable, than those encountered in higher Alpine terrains.  Always obtain a weather forecast from a reliable source before setting off for mountainous or upland areas.  Be prepared for the worst conditions that may occur.  Turn back if the weather deteriorates or if the route or conditions are too much for anyone in the group.  Never be deceived by a mild valley breeze.  Climb only 1000 ft. and, at any time of the year, it can become an icy, piercing gale force wind.

Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them.  Make sure you know how to walk a compass bearing and always carry a whistle and a torch with spare bulb and batteries.  Consider carrying a GPS unit, especially if poor visibility is a possibility.  Carry a first aid kit and an emergency supply of high energy food.  In remote or exposed areas always carry a survival bag.

Keep the load you carry as light as is practicable with regard to the protection required from the weather in the working area.  Twenty kilograms is a reasonable maximum if it has to be carried all day.  Keep the load high and as close to the body as possible, frames or high pack rucksacks are the most effective.  Pack so that the load is balanced: use a waist strap to prevent the load swinging and so upsetting your balance on rough ground.

Always move carefully over rough, rocky or vegetation-covered ground, avoiding loose boulders, burrows, etc.  Take care not to dislodge loose rocks or other objects.  If you do, then shout a warning to those who may be below.  Under no circumstances must stones or rocks be rolled or thrown down hillsides or over cliffs.  Take particular care in areas of land fill, tips and spoil heaps, where uneven compaction may lead to instability. 

Only climb a fence or dry-stone dyke when absolutely essential- use a stile or gate whenever possible.

Do not climb cliffs, rock faces or crags unless this has been approved as an essential part of the work.  Avoid the edges of cliffs and quarries and other steep or sheer faces.  Do not run down steep slopes.

Always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the following:

Poor visibility caused by heavy rain and/or thick cloud could cause you to become disorientated and lost.  When visibility is poor constantly refer to your compass and make progress cautiously.  If you are on a path, follow it carefully and watch out for cairns.  Take every opportunity to sight on an identified object.  Stop frequently if you have to travel on a compass bearing, each time taking a sighting on an object ahead (an alternative is to send a companion ahead of you twenty metres or so at a time).  Sightings should be made whilst stationary.  Remember also that it is easy to loose all sense of time on a long walk, so carry a watch and allow plenty of time to finish your expedition in daylight.

Do not venture onto snow or ice without having ice axe and crampons and experience of using them.  Do not walk on frozen over lochs and rivers. 

Do not enter old mine works or cave systems unless it has been approved as an essential part of the work.  Only do so by arrangement with the Course Leader with proper lighting and headgear.

In areas where game shooting takes place, wear high visibility clothing.  Find out when and where organised shoots are taking place and plan accordingly.  For these areas, liaison with the landowners is essential and permission must be sought where necessary.

Those working among or near dry vegetation, such as gorse or dead bracken, must not smoke or undertake activities that are likely to cause fires.  All objects that might subsequently cause fire, such as glass, should be removed from the site.

If the worst happens and the group becomes lost then:


2.2  River crossings

Plan your route carefully to avoid crossing rivers and having to wade through fast turbulent steams.  Heavy rain may cause flooding and make streams rise rapidly into dangerous torrents.  Do not attempt to cross such streams in spate.  River crossings are not to be undertaken lightly and if there is any doubt at all either make a detour or wait until the spate or flood subsides.

If an occasion arises in which it is decided that the crossing of a river is the safest of several alternatives, then follow the procedure below:


2.3  Woods and forests

The main safety hazards in woods and forests are restricted movement and limited visibility.  Always bear in mind that work in woods and forests is commonly more tiring than elsewhere, and plan your work accordingly.  It is easy to become lost; so if you do have an accident, it may be difficult for you to be found or for you to find the way out.

Keep your position continually in mind.  If you do become lost, back tracking is generally more helpful than carrying on in the hope that things will improve.  A map of the district and compass should be carried at all times.  Consider carrying a GPS unit.

Try to avoid areas where growth is dense and the nature of the ground and any obstructions or holes are obscured, also watch for whiplash of branches.  Rocks and boulders and fallen trees in forests frequently bear a covering of moss and are slippery when wet.  Scree slopes in forests should be avoided whenever practicable.  If climbing steep slopes, take great care not to rely too heavily on vegetation for support, it may not be as firmly fixed as you hope.

Do not smoke at times of high fire risk, or as decreed by local forestry regulations.  Smoking is not recommended in forested areas.  Also take care not to leave anything that might start a fire - glass for example.

If possible, avoid walking through dense plantations of young trees; they are very susceptible to damage, and are very impenetrable.


2.4 Bogs, swamps, mires and marshes

Of the several types of wet unstable ground likely to be encountered those in which a raft of vegetation overlies water are perhaps the most dangerous.  These can usually be distinguished by their swaying movement when walked on.  Any continuous carpets of sphagnum or peat mud should also be avoided.  Reed-swamps are difficult to traverse on foot and extra care should be taken.

Do not attempt to cross a bog of any type if you are alone.  If it is essential to cross a bog, try to keep to the drier upstanding parts, preferably to any tussocks of grassy plants, and avoid unvegetated areas.  Probe ahead with a pole.  If you find yourself sinking, immediately lie flat on your back, and call for assistance; keep calm; if possible free your legs and feet to the horizontal.  If you are carrying a survival bag or other inflatable object try to inflate it to give you buoyancy.  Even a plastic bag or waterproof garment may be used to trap air and so provide limited support.  Still lying flat, move back in the direction of your approach using any tussocks for support.  If you become immobilised try to get behind some vegetation for shelter, put on spare clothing and use a survival bag.


2.5  Coastlines, estuaries, mudflats and salt-marshes

Careful preparation is important before undertaking work in these areas.  The period available for work is usually limited by the tides and knowledge of the state of the tide and of the time is essential.  The times of high and low water for each day of the year can be found at

Estuaries, mudflats and salt-marshes are, in general, very exposed and can be very cold; the limitations on working time, due to tides, may also result in work having to be carried out early in the morning or late in the evening.  Ensure adequate clothing is worn.

Knowledge of the day's tides is essential but allowance must also be made for local conditions and changes in the weather, e.g. a change to an on-shore wind can bring forward the time of high tide.  When the terrain is flat the tide advances quickly and work should be planned to allow ample time for exit before the flood tide starts to advance across the work area.   There are often surprisingly deep water channels flowing through these areas, and great care must be taken not to get trapped by the rising tide against these.

Always carry a map and a compass in case mist or fog develops suddenly and obscures the shoreline.  It is particularly important that the party stays together.

Take great care when walking or climbing over slippery rocks below high water mark on rocky shores.


2.6 Construction sites

Construction sites are dangerous areas for the following reasons:

Each year about 50 people die on Construction Sites, and many more are seriously injured.

When you arrive at a construction site you will gather at the Site Office which should be clearly sign posted.  The Site Manager will meet you and explain the site hazards and the steps being taken to protect your health and safety.  They, or a colleague, will escort you around the Site.  Follow the instructions you are given at all times, and do not leave the group at any time.  Wear a safety helmet (approved to EN 397), a high visibility jacket (approved to EN 471)  and safety footwear (approved to BSEN ISO 20345) when required.