by Hamish Macdonell


THE snow-topped hills rise steeply behind the village of Corpach, a couple of miles Northwest of Fort William on the road to Glenfinnan. But for Nicola MacColl it is not the hills that hold the attraction of living there: it is the water.

Corpach sits in a natural harbour on Loch Eil. That loch merges with Loch Linnhe, giving Ms MacColl the freedom to enjoy as much wild swimming as she wants.

At this time of year, the conditions are challenging. Ms MacColl is trying to complete a Polar Bear Challenge. This means at least two swims every month through the winter, without a wet suit.

Ms MacColl tries her best to brave the cold through the winter, knowing that, when the warmer weather comes, she will be able to swim more frequently, on her own and with groups of like-minded souls, all eager to revel in this pristine marine environment.

And it is pristine. There are some who want to claim that the presence of fish farms on some of Scotland’s sea lochs – like Loch Linnhe and nearby Loch Leven – represent a threat to marine life and even to the health of wild swimmers.

A piece in the Herald on Sunday last weekend was a depressing case in point with long-time critics of salmon farming making totally unfounded claims that the occasional medicinal treatments used by farmers could be putting wild swimmers health at risk.

The focus of their concern was the licensed veterinary medicine azamethiphos that is used by salmon farmers as a sea lice treatment in tiny quantities – one part per million in seawater.

Indeed, the quantities are so small that a swimmer would have to swallow enough seawater to fill 120 full-sized Olympic swimming pools (each one holding two and half million litres of water) to risk any harm from this medicine.

Not only that, but azamethiphos is soluble in water so breaks down quickly, diluting it even further. What was also not pointed out was that similar medicines are not only widely present in the environment but are used in fruit and vegetable production. They are also a component in non-prescription flea collars bought by pet owners so there is probably more likelihood of coming across medicines like these in the course of normal life than swimming in a sea loch.

Some of the concerns expressed in last weekend’s piece were understandable because the facts and figures about medicine use on salmon farms are not well known.

But now that these figures on dilution and the tiny quantities used have been shared, then those fears can be allayed. There really is nothing to be concerned about. Our sea lochs are pristine and they remain so with salmon farms operating safely within their shores.

But who better than a fellow wild swimmer to explain it like it is?

Ms MacColl is not just an enthusiastic wild swimmer and Corpach resident, she is also the Quality Systems Manager at Mowi, a salmon farming company with bases in Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe.

She said: “Most swimmers are sensible and don’t swim too close to the farms, but that is because these are working sites with boats going to and fro, submerged pipes, ropes and anchor chains not because of treatments or medicines or anything like that.

“I have no problem swimming in areas with farms. That is because I work in the sector and I know how the farms operate.

“Sometimes farms get blamed when its not their fault. This concern over medicines appears to be another case where farmers are being blamed without any evidence to back it up.”

Scotland’s salmon farmers are launching a safety campaign this Spring, encouraging all marine users to stay outside the buoys marking the farm boundaries.

This is not because of treatments, it is because these sites are working farms with hidden hazards like pipes and ropes. There is also the biosecurity and the health of the fish to consider. The presence of swimmers, divers and boats can cause stress in fish, something all farmers are keen to avoid.

But, as soon as restrictions allow, Scotland’s salmon farmers will also start inviting people back onto their farms, to see what really goes on, out on the water. These will be proper, organised tours with visitors in protective equipment and the fish kept safe.

Perhaps then, we can all engage in a sensible debate, acknowledging legitimate concerns and reassuring those with worries but also ending the sort of scaremongering sensationalism which can do so much damage, if allowed to go unchallenged.

Hamish Macdonell is Director of Strategic Engagement at the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.