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FARMING

France culls over 600,000 poultry in new bird flu outbreak

France has culled 600,000 to 650,000 chickens, ducks and other poultry over the past month, officials said Friday, in a race to contain a bird flu virus threatening to become the fourth major outbreak in the country since 2015.

Chickens at a henhouse near Loon-Plage in France.
Chickens at a henhouse near Loon-Plage in France. France is one of several European countries now battling a highly contagious strain of bird flu. PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

The Agriculture Ministry reported virus clusters at 26 factory farms, mainly in the southwest — home to France’s lucrative foie gras pate industry — as well as 15 cases in wild fowl and three at barnyards.

Several European countries are now battling a highly contagious flu strain, H5N1, just a year after a similar virus decimated flocks.

Belgium and Britain have announced outbreaks, while Czech veterinarians said Wednesday that 80,000 birds would be culled at a single farm where over 100,000 animals have died from the virus since last week.

In France, the government ordered farmers in November to keep poultry indoors in a bid to stop the spread of the virus by migratory birds, though the first case was detected later that month, at a site in the north.

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

The first case to strike the southwest, where most outbreaks are now located, came on December 16th, the ministry said.

Last winter more than 500 farms saw mass infections that prompted the culling of some 3.5 million birds, mainly ducks, prompting the government to spend millions of euros in compensation.

Poultry farmers had already been hit by massive bird flu outbreaks in the winters of 2015-16 and 2016-17.

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

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ENVIRONMENT

‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

France is used to long, hot summers. The French are even used to water restrictions. But the warm, dry conditions right now, after another dry winter could have implications beyond not being allowed to water your tomatoes.

'No region has been spared': Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The Local reported on the unusually early spell of warm weather earlier this week and concerns over water levels as temperatures passed 30C in the southwest of the country for the first time this year. Since that report, the number of départements under water restrictions because of drought has risen from 10 to 15. One area in the east of Bouches-du-Rhône is already at ‘crisis’ level.

National forecaster Meteo-France said the country was in the grip of a hot spell that is “notable for its timing, its duration and its geographical spread”, and had recorded a 20-percent drop in rainfall nationally between September 2021 and April 2022.

French farmers are worried about their harvests. France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

The hot, dry conditions could not have come at a worse time. On Monday, France’s Agriculture Ministry warned about the impact of an unseasonably hot and dry stretch which it said “will have an impact on cereal production” in France following lower-than-average winter rainfall.

As well as wheat, other crops sown in winter, such as barley, are in a crucial development stage, while corn and sunflower production over the summer could also be hit.

Farmers have had to water wheat already, otherwise yields would drop dramatically. “We wouldn’t normally water at this time of the year but the dry periods are coming earlier and earlier,” one farmer in the Loiret told AFP. “If we don’t water today, we’ll lose 50 percent of our output.” 

The war in Ukraine means wheat prices are already at record levels – already at more than €400 a tonne in Europe for delivery in September, up from €260/tonne a year before Russia’s invasion. A strong harvest in France would offset some of the global food chain issues caused by the conflict.

But, because of the lack of rain, two-thirds of France is already experiencing dry to very dry soils – prompting concern of a soil or agricultural drought, in which the water deficit in soil is bad enough to alter the proper development of vegetation. 

Over the past three months, soils have remained very dry for the season in the eastern half of France, Corsica and locally in northern France – a situation that occurs, on average, one year in 10.  

They have been extremely dry over the same period in PACA, Corsica, the Massif Central, parts of Burgundy, the Grand-East and Hauts-de-France, a one-year-in-25 situation.  

That means the prospect is for a smaller than usual wheat harvest. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher.

“We already had markets that were very nervous. This is adding to tensions,” Nathan Cordier, a grain market analysts at agricultural consultancy Agritel, told AFP. “France is one of the major players in the wheat market and people are counting on it. “The question is whether export volumes will be enough.”

“No region has been spared. We can see the earth cracking every day,” Christiane Lambert, of France’s biggest agricultural union FNSEA, told AFP on Monday. “If things carry on like this, farmers who can irrigate their crops will be able to deal with it but the others will face a dramatic reduction in yields.”

France’s current hot spell is expected to last until the middle of next week. Forecasts beyond that time are too unreliable to be taken seriously, but Meteo France has warned that the climate trend for the summer is that it will most likely be drier and hotter than normal.

If rain returns towards the end of the month and into June, experts say it will partially compensate for the water deficit in the year to date, but will not have much effect on the water table or river flows.

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