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PARIS (Reuters) - France will scale back preventive slaughtering of ducks to counter bird flu after the culling of 800,000 birds this month helped slow the spread of the disease in the southwest, the country's agriculture minister said on Thursday.
France resorted to a mass cull after the highly contagious H5N8 strain of bird flu started spreading among farms in the southwest, the country's main production zone for the duck and goose liver speciality foie gras.
"We have passed the peak in preventive culling," Stephane Le Foll told reporters. "We have zones where the situation has started to stabilise."
The 800,000 birds culled preventively were in addition to about 1 million that died or were slaughtered at farms where the H5N8 virus was detected, he said.
France had confirmed 152 cases of H5N8 bird flu on farms as of Thursday, and is one of a number of European countries to have been affected by the virus since late last year.
The outbreak has exasperated farmers in southwest France who already experienced an epidemic of different bird flu strains a year ago, which led authorities to suspend foie gras production.
Le Foll pledged that remaining compensation due from last year's crisis would be paid in April and that farmers hit again this year would start receiving from March further aid worth "several tens of millions of euros", he said.
Last year's compensation package was estimated at around 130 million euros, co-financed by France and the European Union.
The authorities and the foie gras industry would also study longer-term measures to reduce bird flu risks, including a rethink of the transporting of animals which has been blamed for spreading the disease in southwest France, Le Foll said.
(Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)