There is a large body of data on the firing properties of dopamine cells in anaesthetised rats or rat brain slices. However, the extent to which these data relate to more natural conditions is uncertain, as there is little quantitative information available on the firing properties of these cells in freely moving rats. We examined this by recording from the midbrain dopamine cell fields using chronically implanted microwire electrodes. (1) In most cases, slowly firing cells with broad action potentials were profoundly inhibited by the dopamine agonist apomorphine, consistent with previously accepted criteria. However, a small group of cells was found that were difficult to classify because of ambiguous combinations of properties. (2) Presumed dopamine cells could be divided into low and high bursting (>40% of their spikes in bursts) groups, with the majority having low bursting rates. The distribution of burst incidence was similar to that previously reported with chloral hydrate anaesthesia, but the average intraburst frequency was higher in the conscious animal at rest and was higher again in bursts triggered by salient stimuli. (3) There was no evidence for spike frequency adaptation within bursts on average, consistent with the hypothesis that afterhyperpolarisation currents may be disabled during behaviourally induced bursting. (4) Presumed dopamine cells responded to reward-related stimuli with increased bursting rates and significantly higher intraburst frequencies compared to bursts emitted outside task context, indicating that modulation of afferent activity might not only trigger bursting, but may also regulate burst intensity. (5) In addition to the irregular single spike and bursting modes we found that extremely regular (clock-like) firing, previously only described for dopamine cells in reduced preparations, can also be expressed in the freely moving animal. (6) Cross-correlation analysis of activity recorded from simultaneously recorded neurones revealed coordinated activity in a quarter of dopamine cell pairs consistent with at least "functional" connectivity. On the other hand, most dopamine cell pairs showed no correlation, leaving open the possibility of functional sub-groupings within the dopamine cell fields. Taken together, the data suggest that the basic firing modes described for dopamine cells in reduced or anaesthetised preparations do reflect natural patterns of activity for these neurones, but also that the details of this activity are dependent upon modulation of afferent inputs by behavioural stimuli.