Guidance information for volunteer fieldworkers

The term fieldwork covers all types of ornithological survey and research work undertaken on behalf of the BTO, including counting, nest recording and ringing. This guide identifies some key issues that volunteers should consider  while undertaking fieldwork.

Below you will find the BTO fieldwork hazard checklist, plus important information on insurance, land access, fieldwork considerations for under 18s and safeguarding.


Public liability insurance letter

BTO carries insurance for liabilities to third parties for loss, damage or injury, and can provide written confirmation for any landowner requesting it; a copy of our  public liability insurance letter (PDF, 246.22 KB) is available. Please note that claims under this policy depend on a legal liability for the BTO being established, so it may not cover you in a personal capacity. You are not covered by the BTO’s employer’s liability insurance.

Access permission

Scottish outdoor access code Access in England Access in Northern Ireland

Always obtain permission from the relevant landowner or tenant to enter any private land not subject to open access legislation before commencing fieldwork, and do not continue fieldwork if access permission is later revoked. A letter confirming your participation in BTO fieldwork can be provided by the survey organiser on request; we are not able to release these personal details without confirmation that you are happy for us to do so, so please do not ask landowners to contact us directly. 

guidance for ringers outside scotland guidance for ringers in scotland

You may not need permission to count birds on Open Access land (in Scotland, please consult section 3.64 of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code) but it is courteous to contact the landowner and explain what you are doing and why, when it is practical to do so. Please abide by the relevant Code in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ringers must obtain permission to ring on Open Access land outside Scotland. Within Scotland, the situation with respect to Open Access land is less clear-cut so please consult and adhere to BTO's guidance.


BTO Safeguarding Policy safeguarding in the ringing scheme

The BTO Safeguarding Policy sets out our approach and commitment to protecting children and vulnerable adults who engage with BTO from harm and abuse, and you should ensure that you are familiar with this document if interacting with these groups; protocols specific to the Ringing Scheme are available to ringers via the Ringers’ Pages.

parental consent form

All volunteers must inform the BTO if they are under 18 years of age. Parents or guardians of the under-18 will be asked to sign a BTO parental consent form (DOC, 613.50 KB) (DOC, 613.50 KB) stating that they agree to their child undertaking the activities and have made them aware of the associated risks. To obtain a paper copy of the Parental Consent Form, contact the Volunteer H&S Officer at BTO (01842 750050 or peopleteam [at]

Surveyor Health & Safety

As a BTO volunteer, you are under no obligation to participate in a survey or scheme, nor to visit a particular site through participation in that survey or scheme, even if local survey organisers or BTO staff have suggested or requested that you do so.

H&S responsibility

Volunteers are responsible for their own health and safety, and should not put themselves in a position that could place them, or others, in danger. You should never undertake any work if you have concerns about your own or others’ health and safety. If you have any such concerns, you should stop fieldwork immediately.

If you have any concerns, or wish to report any issues encountered, please contact the BTO H&S Team directly (peopleteam [at], the Regional Organiser relevant to your survey, or your Regional Representative.

BTO Fieldwork Hazard Checklist

The aim of this checklist is to help you improve your own personal safety while carrying out BTO surveys by identifying potential hazards and  possible mitigating actions; the format is intended for easy translation to Risk Assessments should these be required. Note that this information is for guidance only and may not be exhaustive with respect to potential hazards; BTO surveyors carry out a wide range of activities across a range of habitats and regions, and any assessment of risk should take all relevant local factors into account, in addition to any risks relevant to specific individuals (e.g. pre-existing medical conditions).  .

Importantly, this document starts with guidance around Covid-19 (Section 1), which should be read in conjunction with the latest statement on the BTO website and/or with emails received from BTO concerning regional or national restrictions, for example in relation to group size or movement. Following this guidance should ensure that the risk of Covid-19 transmission associated with these activities remains very low.

Hazards relating to Covid-19

General contact with Covid-19 

  • Maintain social distancing, keeping a minimum distance between individuals from different households as per latest government guidance 
  • Carry appropriate amounts of cleansing materials and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds using soap and water, or use hand sanitizer (minimum 60% alcohol content)
  • Carry a face covering that covers your nose and mouth and wear this during any group activity or when contact with a member of the public might occur
  • Avoid touching your face with your hands
  • Sneeze/cough into your sleeve, the crook of your arm or into a tissue that can then be disposed of
  • If you need to seek access permission, do this via phone and in advance whenever possible. If there is a need to knock on doors, ensure you wear a mask, cleanse your hands before and after, and maintain social distancing at all times
  • Avoid activities that involve anything other than minimal non-Covid-19 Health and Safety risks, as the implications of having an accident could risk Covid-19 transmission and place extra pressure on rescue and health services

Contact with Covid-19 via group operations

  • Minimise the number of people from different households involved in group operation, noting the additional risks potentially incurred by lone working
  • Avoid interacting with members of the public; give vehicles and houses a wide berth where possible and communicate with landowners by phone or email

Contact with Covid-19 via travel

  • Minimise distance travelled, abiding by travel restrictions imposed on the general public as closely as possible
  • Avoid use of public transport, but if use is unavoidable, wear a face covering
  • If using a private vehicle, do not share it with a member of another household
  • Ensure sufficient fuel, food and water is carried from your local area to prevent stopping at garages or shops en route
  • Avoid staying away from home overnight

Contact with Covid via equipment and surfaces

  • Avoid sharing equipment with individuals from other households
  • If sharing of equipment is unavoidable, disinfect it between uses and adopt frequent hand-washing or use of hand sanitizer (minimum 60% alcohol content)
  • Minimise contact with multiple contact points such as gates and stiles; wear gloves or wash / sanitise hands before and afterwards

General fieldwork hazards

Danger of injury through accident

  • Identify potential hazards in daylight, on arrival at each site
  • Wear suitable clothing and appropriate footwear for the location/terrain and weather conditions
  • Use footpaths where possible
  • Carry a mobile phone with sufficient charge and test for reception blackspots
  • Carry a torch and spare batteries
  • Carry a first aid kit, whistle and survival bag
  • Ensure you have access to drinking water and food
  • Avoid well known danger spots; do not cross railway lines or other potential hazardous sites e.g. quarries or ravines
  • Heed warning signs and do not enter private (non-access) land that has been deliberately obstructed
  • Avoid contact with livestock and agricultural machinery

Lone working

  • Avoid lone working where possible
  • If lone working, always notify someone (partner, friend, neighbour) where you are going, when you expect to be back and details of your vehicle. Agree on a course of action if you have not returned home by the time you stated
  • Lone workers should be aware of the location of the nearest house or phone so that help can be called if required

Inclement weather

  • Check weather forecast before leaving for fieldwork
  • Wear appropriate clothing for the time of year, and be prepared for weather changes
  • Carry waterproof and/or warm clothing. Hazards can increase significantly in heavy rain, strong wind and thunderstorms
  • Avoid or terminate outside activity in inclement weather as appropriate

Getting lost

Human confrontation

  • Consider your personal safety when conducting fieldwork within the vicinity of known or likely trouble spots
  • Avoid confrontation with landowners, land workers or members of the public
  • Consider the privacy of residents when performing early-morning survey work in residential areas
  • If you have any concerns about your personal safety, cease fieldwork immediately

Traffic and driving

  • High visibility clothing should be worn whenever working in the vicinity of roads, particularly at night
  • Take care to park sensibly, preferably off-road, and do not block entrances

Water features

  • Non-swimmers should be accompanied when walking by water
  • Keep at safe distance from banks, cliffs and the water’s edge
  • Do not cross rivers or streams unless by bridge
  • Avoid work when there is a risk of flooding
  • If operating below the high water mark, check high tide times before commencing fieldwork, and allow ample time to leave the intertidal area.


  • Be aware of low, fallen and hanging branches and take care to avoid them
  • Do not climb trees or onto tree limbs
  • Be aware of other wildlife when investigating tree cavities or nest boxes – especially bees, wasps and hornets


  • Avoid touching or climbing over electric fences
  • Avoid touching or climbing over barbed-wire fences
  • Ensure your tetanus vaccine is up to date

Bees, wasps and hornets

  • Approach  potential bee/wasp/hornet nest sites, e.g. tree cavities, with appropriate caution
  • Carry appropriate personal medication if allergic
  • Identify others with allergies if working in a group

Unfamiliar dogs

  • Do not run away if approached by an unfamiliar dog, but stay calm and still and avoid direct eye contact as this can be seen as a form of aggression or a challenge
  • Drop anything you are carrying that may have attracted the dog and try calmly telling the dog to sit or stay
  • Ignore the dog if it jumps up – do not shout or push it away as it may see this as a game. If knocked to the ground, remain motionless in the foetal position and protect your face
  • When you do move, move slowly and remain facing the dog

Tetanus and Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease)

While not common, these diseases can have severe effects, and in rare cases result in death.

  • Clean any cuts, etc. immediately with clean water and cover adequately
  • Ensure that your anti-tetanus treatments are up-to-date (normally within the last 10 years)
  • Avoid contact with water, particularly if contaminated with cattle/rat urine
  • Wash hands thoroughly and always before eating or smoking.
  • If you contract flu-like symptoms, tell your doctor that you may have been exposed to Weil’s disease

Lyme disease and Tick-borne Encephalitis

Refer to

BTO guidance

BTO guidance (PDF, 462.19 KB)

General bird-borne diseases and hygeine issues

Refer to BTO guidance.

Additional risks associated with ringing and nest recording

Bites and stings

  • Check for bees, wasps, hornets and fleas when visiting cavities or cleaning out nest boxes
  • Wear gloves when cleaning out nest boxes
  • Clean boxes in autumn (legal after 1 August) to avoid a build-up of fleas

Injuries from talons or bills

  • Wear safety spectacles and gloves as appropriate

Whoosh nets

  • Wear eye protection when setting nets
  • Set in pairs, allowing one person to hold the peg in place while elastic is tensioned by a second person
  • Use pegs of sufficient length and ensure they are securely hammered into the ground
  • Do not use excessive tension

Cannon nets

Refer to guidance in the Cannon-netting Manual

Ladder work

Refer to Ladder Association LA/LA455 for guidance


Refer to HSE Tree Climbing for guidance

General diseases, including Salmonellosis and Avian Influenza

Valuable information is gained from the reporting of ringed birds found dead. If possible, wear disposable protective gloves when picking up and handling dead wild birds, but if these are not available then a plastic bag can be used as a make-shift glove. When the dead wild bird has been picked up and the ring details noted, the bag can be turned back on itself and tied. It should then be placed in a second plastic bag, tied and disposed of in the normal household waste (lidded bin outside).

  • Refer to 

    BTO guidance

    BTO guidance (PDF, 446.84 KB)
  • Wash hands after handling animals or coming into contact with animal droppings, soil, sand or water that may be contaminated
  • Cover existing cuts/abrasions and clean and cover any that occur during operations
  • Wash hands/use hand wipes before touching your face or eating
  • Wash clothes after fieldwork and avoid using fieldwork clothes for other purposes
  • Open bird bags away from the face to avoid inhaling powdered faeces and feather scale
  • Wash bird bags between ringing sessions and store ringing equipment away from domestic areas
  • Seek medical advice should you display symptoms of any illness that may be related to ringing or nest recording


Rabies may be encountered via bats caught in mist nets.

  • Ensure you have up to date rabies vaccination if the probability of capturing bats is significant
  • Avoid sites/times of day when the probability of capturing bats is greatest
  • If a bat is caught in a mist net, wear gloves during extraction
  • If bitten, wash the wound immediately with soap and water for at least five minutes and cleanse with disinfectant
  • Seek immediate medical advice from your GP, even if you have up to date rabies vaccinations

Avian influenza, including Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)

Handling birds - general disease risks

  • Do not handle dead birds or live birds which appear to be infected, their droppings, or any water nearby.
  • If you handle a bird that appears to be sick (e.g. has obvious discharges in or around the nares or the beak) take particular care to wash your hands thoroughly immediately afterwards.
Personal hygiene 
  • High standards of personal hygiene should be maintained when handling wild birds, including hand washing and taking care to avoid rubbing eyes/ touching the mouth, eating, drinking or smoking until hands are clean.
  • Ensure access to appropriate means of sanitising hands and equipment, e.g. soap and water, antibacterial wipes, 70% alcohol solution, or virucides (Safe4, Virkon).
  • Dispose of waste in a plastic bag and seal it at the end of the session.
  • Keep cuts and abrasions completely covered by a waterproof occlusive dressing. If a cut or abrasion occurs during ringing, clean the wound immediately with soap and water and cover it with a waterproof dressing.
  • Remove any faeces deposited on hands or clothes as soon as possible and sanitise the area.
  • Disinfect waterproofs/boots/equipment, wash clothes/bird bags and sanitise hands/shower as soon as possible after the end of the ringing session.
  • Transport clothing that has been worn for ringing in a sealed plastic bag. Avoid using clothes in which you ring for other activities.
  • Wash/clean and store all ringing equipment away from food hygiene and living areas.
While ringing birds
  • Handle birds in a well-lit and well-ventilated area to minimise the possibility of inhaling dried faecal or other material.
  • Minimise the time spent on activities that necessitate blowing to part feathers (e..g assessing moult, brood patch scores) and move your face away from the bird to inhale. If using a tube, ensure that the same end is always placed in the mouth. 
  • Wear disposable nitrile gloves for activities where it is safe to do so, e.g. sexing by cloacal eversion.

If you suspect an infection related to ringing, tell your doctor and emphasise the level of recent contact you have had with birds.

Handling birds - HPAI specific risks

The UK Health Security Agency has said that avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and the risk to the general public’s health is very low. Humans can, however, become infected via close contact with infected birds or inhalation of aerosols containing virus, their droppings and nearby water.

If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any gulls or birds of prey, or five or more of any other species in one place, you should report them to the Defra helpline (tel: 03459 335577) or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.

Know the symptoms in wild birds 

The main clinical signs of HPAI in birds are a swollen head; blue discolouration of the neck and throat; loss of appetite; respiratory distress such as gaping beak, coughing, sneezing, gurgling, rattling; diarrhoea; fewer eggs laid; increased mortality; neurological signs such as trembling, falling over, swimming or walking in circles.

Clinical signs can vary between species of bird and some species (e.g ducks and geese) may show minimal clinical signs.

Learn how to spot Avian Influenza

Know the symptoms in humans

Symptoms include conjunctivitis; fever with a temperature >=38ºC; cough or shortness of breath requiring hospitalisation; diarrhoea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

If symptoms persist, inform your GP or healthcare provider that you may have been exposed to HPAI and other potential avian zoonoses.

Learn about Avian Influenza on the NHS website

Disinfectants and pregnancy 

Be aware that some of the disinfectants used for AI precautions are teratogenic (can cause structural and functional changes to a foetus).  Any person who is pregnant, or has a possibility of being pregnant, SHOULD NOT use these disinfectants under any circumstances. Inspect the Material Safety Data Sheet for any disinfectants used. 

Personal protective equipment (PPE) 

Consider appropriate PPE, including face coverings, well-fitted nitrile gloves, and footwear/clothing which can be disinfected after handling.

Further information

Further information about the Countryside Code and countryside access issues:

Further information about using a map and compass: 

Further health and safety information for ringers: 

Further information on bird diseases and hygiene:

For a wide range of health and safety information, visit the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) website. The following guides are particularly relevant:

This information covers volunteers working in the UK. Volunteers working outside of the UK should seek information from relevant sources. 

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