Planning and undertaking fieldwork

By Lauren Knight, Portsmouth University.

Giving August 2015 was a very wet month in Ireland, particularly in the Wicklow Mountains. It was also the month that I headed into the area for the first field season of my PhD. This was my first ever field season, before August I had never undertaken independent fieldwork for more than a week and I learnt a lot of valuable lessons along the way. I thought I would use this blog to share a few of these.

The Wicklow Mountains lie south of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. The area is largely protected by a National Park and covers more than 200 km2. It is an area steeped in history; home to a 6th century monastic settlement in Glendalough, the site of the 1580 Irish rebellion battle of Glenmalur and the source of water for the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. It is also an outstandingly beautiful region, (but then I’m biased) and there are also abundant glacial features.


LK_1Location and relief of the Wicklow Mountains, Ireland (52°53’N-53°15’N; 06°11’W- 06°36’W)

In brief, my PhD seeks to use a combination of geomorphological mapping, sedimentology and dating techniques to establish the dynamics and timings of Late Devensian glaciation within the Wicklow Mountains. Although it is largely accepted that the area hosted an independent ice cap at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), little work has focused upon the shift to localised mountain glaciation during the Last Glacial-Interglacial Transition (LGIT). Even less is known about the extent and nature of glaciation during the Younger Dryas (YD), although the area contains the type-site for the YD in Ireland (Lough Nahanagan). My PhD research hopes to address some of these gaps.

LK_2Mapping amongst the ferns (in some places these were over head height, not so good feature identification)

LK_3One of the exposures that will be revisited in 2016, when sedimentology becomes the field focus

Fieldwork is a huge part of data collection for the project and will be undertaken over three fieldwork campaigns. As I’ve already mentioned, the first happened in August. That month was perhaps one of the most intense and mentally demanding experiences I’ve had (so far). It was challenging and hard work throughout, but I enjoyed it immensely! I was finally in the field looking at sites that I’d stared at on Google Earth and in Arc Map for months. It was so satisfying to have actually reached this critical stage of my PhD, after months of reading and planning. Plus the evidence that I was finding was exciting!

Here are a few lessons I learnt along the way, which may help you if you’re planning fieldwork for the first time:
1) Check your field kit thoroughly beforehand

If you think some of your field kit looks a bit worse for wear, seriously consider the benefits of replacing it before that extended field season. My walking boots were pretty old, but faithful and very comfortable. I knew that they needed replacing soon but felt that I didn’t have time to find the perfect new pair, let alone break them in before fieldwork. However, four days into the season the sole of my left boot peeled neatly off. This was very inconvenient. Fortunately, a short journey to an outdoor retailer rectified this little problem… but what if I had been at a remote field site? If I had been in the Arctic or Himalayas… my neat new boot solution would not have been an option. My oversight could have seriously jeopardised the success of the fieldwork, compromising my ability to cover large distances safely and quickly. Duct tape and superglue can’t really compete with a waterproof and fully soled boot. (For the record, I love my new boots we bonded spectacularly – no blisters!)

LK_4The beginning of the end of the faithful boot – it got a lot worst.


2) Be ambitious, but be realistic and adaptable.

My field schedule was packed. I had a master plan of all the key sites that I had to visit and I spent a lot of time trying to work out the best way to maximise the time in the field. Car access and parking for each site was planned, the most direct walk-in routes were figured out and even multi-valley days were scheduled to cover as much ground as possible. The one thing I didn’t plan was the weather. Persistent low cloud, along with days and days of heavy rain meant that it just wasn’t possible to cover the distance I’d planned in saturated, boggy terrain. It also meant that I didn’t manage to get into some sites at all. A few hanging valleys remained heavy in cloud every time I visited. Yet, I had recognised that plans need to be adaptable –before fieldwork I’d prepared for a number of contingency days. These were low levels days that I should be able to cover rain or shine. In hindsight I can see that I was overambitious with my original plan, but it did mean that I had prepared to cover a large area in detail. This also meant that when the weather made some sites unfeasible, I had a range of back up sites – not just my handful of contingency days. It was only really towards the end of the field season, after a month of poor weather that I started to struggle with site selection.

When planning fieldwork I think its useful to try to consider what might go wrong and prepare for that. I suppose we have to try to expect the unexpected (easier said than done I know) – but always try to have a back up plan. It doesn’t need to be a complicated, but try to pre-empt what might jeopardise your plans. What could you do if a piece of field equipment gets damaged? Can you make a temporary ‘fix’ for it? Do you have spare base maps for when yours get destroyed by rain? What will you do if you can’t get access to a site?
If you try to think about potential problems, specific to your fieldwork, before they happen you can be better prepared to deal with the issues in the field. We all put a lot of time and effort into our field plans; it is incredibly frustrating when things don’t go to plan. So do what you can to try to avoid that field disaster.

LK_5Hiding behind a rock to try to get some shelter to map

LK_6Still enthusiastic about moraines… for now (we left when the thunder and lightning started, that day ended a little early)


3) Lone field working – is it for you?

Sometimes it can be difficult to find field assistants, especially if you’re in the field for an extended period of time. You may find yourself considering some time in the field on your own. I had a week of lone working and that was enough time for me to establish that I really like having some company in the field. It is worth taking the time for find out whether lone working is for you before deciding upon a prolonged period of solo fieldwork. I would also advise checking your University’s lone working policy – it might be that you’re not permitted to venture out alone; in this case the decision has been made for you!

In my opinion a helpful field assistant is invaluable. If they’re knowledgeable about the subject area then you can have discussions in the field (vocalising what you think you’re seeing/is happening can really help clarify your initial thoughts). Even if they’re not familiar with the topic, a good field assistant can get stuck in to make your data collection even more successful – an extra pair of hands is very practical and helpful. Plus, when you’re in the field for a prolonged period even the most passionate and dedicated researchers can find their enthusiasm waning after a while. By the final week of fieldwork, when even my waterproofs were struggling with the rain, my field assistant helped keep the energy levels high (we laughed a lot) and we had a very productive week (we mapped a lot). It was almost certainly a far more constructive than I think it would’ve been if it had been my forth solo (and soggy) week in Ireland.

LK_7Even swarms of bugs can’t stop a good field assistant being an excellent scale


LK_8Neither will rain dampen an enthusiastic take on ‘get in the photo for scale’

Plus it’s nice to have someone to share your lunch with after you crawl through peat.

 LK_10Said peat crawling incident… a last resort. We sank quite quickly otherwise.

Overall, I had a fantastic time in Ireland and learnt a lot very quickly on my first field season and I hope that sharing some of these will help some of you plan your first field season. In brief, we all know how important kit is to get us through tough ground conditions. A kit oversight meant I wasted half a day and added unnecessary hassle early on in the trip. Don’t make foolish kit mistakes like me! Check your kit thoroughly. Also have back up plans (multiple)! Careful preparation meant that even when things didn’t go to plan, I could still get out there and maximise my time. So try to be organised for when things go wrong (something will!). Similarly, I now realise that fieldwork can be incredibly lonely and that I’m a creature of conversation. In fact talking through my initial thoughts with someone made me work much more decisively and efficiently. So for me, having company in the field improves not only the volume (and quality) of data collected, but also the experience getting that data. I think that’s really important, for all of us! As PhD students we are enthusiastic about our work but we should also try to have a good field experience. Think carefully what type of person you are in that respect before heading out solo!
My final (extra) tip is that sometimes you’ve just got to walk away for the day. Fieldwork is intense and it is okay to take a small break when things get tough. The time can still be useful and productive. Perhaps use that time to write up your field notes, or rethink your plan for the next week. Also, use that time to eat some well-deserved cake.

LK_11Fieldwork is tough. Cake is good. We’ve earned it.

All that’s left to say now is – good luck with your fieldwork!

Lauren Knight, Portsmouth University.




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