France steps up duck cull as bird flu hits foie gras farms

French authorities plan to expand their culls of ducks reared for the controversial delicacy foie gras as an outbreak of bird flu rips through the southwest of the country, a producers' federation said Thursday.

France steps up duck cull as bird flu hits foie gras farms
Ducklings at a duck farm in Mugron, southwestern France, on December 29th, 2020. Photo: AFP

The highly pathogenic H5N8 virus was first detected in a bird in a pet shop on the Mediterranean island of Corsica in November before spreading to duck farms on the mainland in December.

 “The virus is stronger than us. New clusters are constantly emerging,” the head of the CIFOQ federation of foie gras producers, Marie-Pierre Pe, told AFP, warning of a “runaway increase” in confirmed and suspected cases. 

She said that around 100 clusters had been identified, mainly in the Landes department, a bastion of the foie gras industry, and that the authorities planned to step up culls.

The agriculture ministry declined to comment.

On Tuesday, France's chief veterinary officer, Loic Evain, said that over 200,000 ducks had already been slaughtered and that a further 400,000 birds were set to be culled, out of around 35 million reared each year in France.

He described the virus, which is not harmful to humans, as “very, very contagious”.

The most recent update from the agriculture ministry, which dates to January 1st, cited 61 clusters detected among birds on duck farms and in pet shops. Of these, 48 were in the Landes area.

Pe said the government's strategy of localised preventive culls was “insufficient” which revealed the state's “powerlessness in the face of a virus which is moving faster than us.”

The head of the chamber of agriculture, Sébastien Windsor, called Wednesday for “radical measures” to try to restore confidence in export markets such as China which announced Wednesday it was suspending French poultry imports over the outbreak.

Producers of foie gras, a paté made from the livers of force-fed ducks or geese, fear a repeat of the devastation wrought by two previous waves of bird flu in the winters of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017.

READ ALSO From frogs to foie gras: Your guide to French dinner etiquette

Over 25 million ducks were culled in the first outbreak, followed by 4.5 million the following year, causing a steep decline in foie gras production.

The Netherlands, Sweden, Britain and Ireland have also reported bird flu outbreaks since November. Dutch authorities culled some 190,000 chickens in November over the discovery of a highly contagious strain of the virus at two farms.

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French hunter kills bear that bit him

A 70-year-old hunter killed a bear in southwest France Saturday after it attacked and seriously wounded him, local officials said.

A brown bear is pictured in the semi-wildlife animal park of Les Angles, southwestern France.
Brown bears had nearly disappeared in France until the country began a reintroduction programme, importing them from Slovenia. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG

The female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, bit him as he was hunting in the Seix region of Ariege, a source close to the case said.

Rescued by the local gendarmerie, he was transported to the intensive care unit of a hospital in Toulouse with a wound to his leg at the level of his femoral artery, officials at the prefecture in Ariege said.

One source close to the case said he was in a serious condition.

The hunter told local officials he had been out with a group of other hunters on the trail of a boar, when the female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, attacked him.

After being wounded, the hunter shot the bear twice, killing it.

The local gendarme unit was called out to rescue him at around 3:30 pm (1430 GMT). They discovered the body of the bear a few metres from where they had found the hunter.

An investigation has been opened into the incident, the prefecture in Ariege said.

One local official told AFP on Saturday: “This is really what we feared.”

“Today, you can really see that cohabitation is complicated,” said Christine Tequi, president of the Ariege department council.

The brown bear had nearly disappeared in this part of the world when France began a programme of reintroducing them, importing them from Slovenia.

Today, there are around sixty of them in the Pyrenees range, leading to increasing tensions with local farmers, because of the threat they pose to their livestock.

In 2020, three bears were illegally killed in the Pyrenees: two of them in Spain and one in France. The French government has committed to replacing any bear killed by a man.

READ ALSO: The decades-old battle between French farmers and conservationists over bears
READ ALSO: What are the most dangerous animals in France?