by Graeme Robertson, Director, Habitat Scotland

The buzzard, mistaken by the early settlers as a goshawk, or “acor” in Portuguese, gave its name to the Azores since they were frequently observed soaring above the islands as indeed, they still do today.

Located on the intersection of the tectonic plates of Europe, Africa and America, the archipelago is set out in a long semi-circle along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Owing to this geographical position, it became a mandatory port of call for trading ships and later the American whaling vessels from New Bedford. The islands also served as a relay station and interchange point for submarine telegraphic cables; a stop-over for the first transatlantic flights; and since World War II have been an allied air base.

Geologically, it appears that the islands began to be formed between the Cretaceous and Cenozoic periods. Being of volcanic origin, the countryside is punctuated by conical peaks, ranging from small stacks to the mountain on Pico which, standing 2,341m high, is the highest point on the archipelago and in Portugal as a whole. Another spectacular sight is the crater of Sete Cidades on Sao Miguel with its twin lakes of sapphire blue and emerald green. On the same island is the equally beautiful Lagoa do Fogo, a lake set in the crater of an extinct volcano where crystal waters turn fiery-red at sunset.

The volcanic activity is still evident in the Azores with mountains of ash, underwater vents, boiling mud and the occasional earth tremor. On the banks of Lagoa das Furnas can be found the natural kitchens where sealed pots of the famous dish called cozido are buried in the ground and slowly cooked by steam from sulphurous springs.

A geothermal energy power plant is now able to regularly produce up to 20% of the energy requirements of Sao Miguel. Early difficulties with the bore hole clogging up with condensates (arteriosclerosis) have now been overcome. However, the experimental onshore wave power plant being constructed at a site on the nothern shoreline of Pico suffered a major setback earlier this year when it was severely damaged by one of the more frequent gales.

Since 1976 the nine islands of the Azores covering a distance of 600kms have been an Autonomous Region of the Portuguese Republic. The most easterly island, Santa Maria, is situated 1,460kms from the European mainland. Flores, the most westerly, is located 3,750kms from the North American mainland. Their individual areas vary between (Sao Miguel) and 17 (Corvo).

The governmental structure is based on a Regional Legislative Assembly with its seat at Horta and on a Regional Government whose central administrative services are at Ponta Delgada and whose Regional Secretariats are scattered between Angra do Heroismo, Ponta Delgada and Horta, the archipelago’s traditional administrative centres. The remaining aspect of the political set-up is the Minister for the Azores, based in Angra do Heroismo, who in general terms represents the sovereign power and coordinates non-regional services.

People and Traditions

The islands were discovered in the 15th century by Portuguese navigators sent out from Prince Henry the Navigator’s School in search of a route to the East Indies. The Atlantic archipelagos were the first discoveries of Henry’s explorers, the Azores in 1427, eight years after Madeira. Later, Prince Henry colonised the islands with Flemish knights from the Order of Christ at Tomar; the reason why many of the inhabitants have fair complexions and blue eyes.

The first groups to settle came from the Portuguese mainland, people of Moorish origin from the Algarve and the Alentejo, Jewish farmers from the Minho, as well as Flemings, Bretons and also a few Italian, English and Scots. These people have worked through many successful methods of surviving and producing a living from the islands. Firstly in farming, timber extraction and fishing, then commerce with ships, whaling, tourism and now additionally as part of the European Union. The population of 280,000 residents has remained stable over many generations. Emigration to North and South America and mainland Portugal has provided a means of employment away from the islands and has established strong economic links with those regions.

The Azoreans are justly proud of their heritage. They protect their finest architecture and Angra do Heroismo, the capital of Terceira, has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Built with the fabulous wealth brought back by the Portuguese from India and the New World, this lovely white town with its fine red-roofed buildings and parallel streets, is a prime example of Renaissance planning. Angra’s magnificent cathedral, splendid palaces and beautiful churches, with their treasure troves of precious relics, priceless antiques, Indo-Portuguese and Flemish art, are being carefully restored to their former glory by local artisans with aid from Portugal and the international community.

The deep religious feelings of the people of the Azores are expressed in their festivals, which keep up the devotion and colour of the past. The most widespread of these are the festivals of Espirito Santo, or Holy Spirit, held in nearly every village, beginning in May and continuing through the summer. Other festivals mark the day of the village patron saint or renew vows made to God centuries ago after particularly disastrous earthquakes or volcanic eruptions on the islands. Associated with most festivals is an arraial, referring to the secular aspects of the events - food, music, dancing, auctions and traditional games.

Although each of the festivals has its own local variations in traditions, there are several elements held in common. The Espirito Santo festivals are under the direction of a local group of men, a brotherhood, and are centred around small chapels, called imperios, often painted in riotous colours. A church service opens the Espirito Santo festival, then a flare or fireworks signal the end of the service and the start of a procession from the church to the imperio. A crown is typically worn by one of the brotherhood and music is provided by the local brass marching band. These bands are a major part of village life in the Azores where there are more such groups than in all of Portugal. After the procession a beef-based broth with bread soaked in it, sopas do Espirito Santo, is served as well as another Azorean food with a strong tradition, massa sovada, a slightly sweet bread made in homes by groups of women taking turns during hours of hand kneading.

A festival of Corpus Christi is also held in many islands. This takes place in June and includes an intricate pathway made of multi-coloured flowers laid in the streets. Terceira is home to lively, fun-filled rope bull runs, where bulls are given enough rope to chase fleet footed young islanders down the streets to the cheers and jeers of their compatriots.

Traditional handicraft reflects the folklore and activities of the Azores and include scrimshaw - objects made from whalebone - miniatures of the great whaling boats, flowers made from fish scales, wickerwork, dresses, hats and clogs, delicate carvings made from fig pith, glazed earthenware, cane furniture, beautiful needlepoint lace and crochet work, rugs and wrought iron. There has been a recent renaissance in the traditional handicrafts after it was recognised that some of the old ways were in danger of being lost. Now there is a handicraft school in Terciera teaching young people the skills of plant dyeing, spinning, weaving and embroidery.


Two main levels distinguish the countryside which is intensively cultivated and almost always divided up into squares lined with dry-stone walls called corrals or pens, enclosures or pastures depending on their size. Up to about 300m in altitude, mixed farming is prevalent; from there upwards, pastures dominate which now, due to the development of cattle breeding, in many places stretch down almost to the coast. Where the soil is poor or unsuitable, timber producing forests or vineyards can be found if the recent lava (the so-called crust) level of exposure to the sun and microclimate of the area are favourable.

Cattle and dairy farming occupy about 35% of the working population. The cattle graze in lush fields and meadows which remain green all year and most beef animals are exported. Milk is processed into the most delicious cheeses, mostly for export, and other dairy products. Pasture management and animal health is to a high standard. Strip grazing using electric fences is frequently employed to manage fields. Many farmers use a portable unit for milking four to eight cows at a time. This can be moved in the field by tractor to follow the cattle rotation through an enclosure. The milk churns are then delivered to local collection points by horse, wagon or small truck. Many of the cattle destined for beef are finished, some indoors, with local maize and imported grain.

The main crops statistically are: fodder maize, wine, sugar beet, late potatoes (20,000T/annum), early potatoes, and grain maize. Chicory, sweet potato, onion and yams are also produced in significant quantities but much less than the primary production group.

Pico is best known for its crisp, dry, white Verdelho wines that once graced the tables of the Russian court. The vines are grown on imported root stock, pruned and trained very low to the ground in small walled enclosures. This viticulture technique utilises the black volcanic soil for heat retention and appears to be very successful despite the strong winds. In response to new EU guidelines for wine production a few fields are now being opened up and enlarged with the vines trained taller in the more familiar continental style. It remains to be seen if they will withstand the wind and produce in the quantities that the traditional methods do.

Tobacco was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century and both cigarettes and cigars are still made. It grows well on Sao Miguel and its production as a traditional crop ensures the continued use of the existing infrastructure, from curing barns to processing factory, and its resultant employment benefits. The commercial cultivation of tea began in the Azores around the 1870’s using Chinese technical skills brought from Macau. It still continues in one small area of Sao Miguel almost as a museum crop and thus remains the only commercial production in Europe. Three types of tea, pekoe, green and grey, are processed in a factory with a fascinating collection of working British colonial era processing machinery.

The tropical passion fruit, which needs warm growing conditions and shelter, is turned into a local aromatic liqueur. It also exists as a garden plant near homes and there are traditional recipes for passion fruit cakes. At first the pineapple, originally from Jamaica, was grown just as an exotic curiosity, but in 1864 the first commercial hot house was built, stimulated by the demise of the orange crop due to an imported disease and a scale insect from Brazil. Within decades there were hundreds of glasshouses growing pineapples but production is now considerably reduced and linked more to tourism. It is now identified as part of the Azores experience and most tours of Sao Miguel include visiting a pineapple farm where liqueur tasting and packaged fresh fruit gifts are available. They are grown organically to very high standards on locally produced mulch. Heather turf is burned to heat the glasshouses and the smoke stimulates fruiting by the pineapple plant. In most other countries this is done chemically.

Bananas are planted behind 3m high hedges and stone walls to protect them from the strong winds. Once established the bananas provide further protection for planting of subtropical orchard and root crops as well as ornamental flowers like hibiscus and strelitzia. In reality, only limited amounts of the banana and orchard crops exceed home consumption and reach the local market. The changing patterns of labour, land ownership, transport and government/EU agriculture policy has meant the maintenance of sub-tropical based agriculture now exists mainly near home gardens or as speciality crops.

Forest trees are planted on land unsuitable for agriculture and on steep ground to prevent erosion. Timber belts are also planted to create shelter. Either Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica or, mostly on Terceira, Eucalyptus species, are planted, and there is some coppice wood.

The fishing industry provides one of the major regional potentials for future growth. An Exclusive Economic Zone of approximately 940,000 mean the Azores have a rich and vast array of fresh fish for export as well as canning. Recently a few companies have begun smoking fish for both domestic consumption and export. One fishery is directed to young blue horse mackerel and chub mackerel performed with boats less than 12.5m long, using seine nets, dipnets and liftnets. Economically, the most important is a seasonal pole-and-line tuna fishery which supports the canning industry and is undertaken by boats between 15 and 30m long. The third is a bottom longline and handline multispecific fishery performed by boats less than 22m long whose most significant catches are blackspot seabream, bluemouth rockfish, forkbeard and conger eel.

Flora and Fauna

Beginning at sea level, along the rocky coasts you will find Myrica faya, a tough evergreen shrub which grows up to about 3m tall and also invades old inland lava flows. The feathery tamarisk often grows near the sea. Above 500m the natural vegetation should be dense dark green juniper-laurel-erica shrub forest and this is best seen on Pico, Terceira and San Miguel. The laurel, Laurus azorica, is an evergreen tree with very stout shoots, leathery leaves and greenish white flowers. The juniper, juniperus brevifolia, is endemic to the Azores and is a conifer with a rather flat crown. Most sizeable trees have long been cut down for their timber. Erica azorica is a shrub up to 6m tall with typical heath-like leaves and tiny rather insignificant flowers. Associated are many interesting shrubs such as Ilex, Viburnum, Clethra, and a very handome, tall bilberry, Vaccinium cylindraceum, with large pendulous dark pink flowers and red tinged young leaves.

The southern most peat bogs in Europe are found in Flores and Terceira. They are very rich in endemic species and are also under great pressure from grazing and could disappear in a few years. The Azorean flora has few species by family. There are 81 families for the 300 vascular plants and 41 have endemic species. Most of these species are living fossils, phylogenetically primitive, and related to the preglacial Terciarian flora of Europe. The ferns are an interesting group with 80 species and the bryophyte flora is rich compared to the vascular one. There are about 450 species with an endemism rate of 5% to the Azores and new species are found every year. A wide spectrum is present, including a large number of sphagnum species existing together with tropical ones, and there are a few interesting bipolar species.

Some 36 bird species are reported to breed in the Azores, 7 of which have been introduced. Until relatively recently farmers killed many birds including chaffinch, canary, blackbird and blackcap because they viewed them as agricultural pests and the government paid compensation on the number of beaks presented. The bullfinch was pursued as a pest of orchards, especially oranges, during the middle of the last century and so successful was the farmers revenge that by the beginning of this century the bird had become very scarce. It is now exceedingly rare, with only a few breeding pairs still existing in the virtually impenetrable forest on the steep slopes of Pico de Vara on San Miguel. Known locally as priolo it is a subspecies and highly distinctive form of the continental population.

Recent studies on the seabirds which breed regularly in the Azores are beginning to highlight the archipelago’s international ornithological and conservation importance. Details about the movements, morphology, breeding, molt, diet and feeding of Bulwers’s Petrel, Cory’s, Manx and Little Shearwaters, Band-rumped Storm Petrel, Yellow-legged Gull, Common and Roseate Terns are providing a comprehensive framework for future research.

Tourism and the Environment

Tourists from Europe must travel through Lisbon. Although Portugal provides the majority of visitors to the Azores, the number of tourists would probably increase with direct flights from London, Paris, Amsterdam or Munich. Despite a plane change, the Azores experience is attractive and varied. There are very few towering hotel blocks, little blatant commercialism and for the most part the islands are completely unspoilt. The climate is mild throughout the year without great variations in annual temperature. It is not a ‘sun, sea and sand’ mass tourism destination and is not promoted as such. Instead, the Portuguese National Tourist Board is taking advantage of the new consumer motivation towards special interest holidays.

The visitors that do come are those who simply want to get away from it all or are interested in the historic architecture, traditional festivals, regional cuisine, walking, whale watching and the thermal baths. In addition, big game fishing for marlin, swordfish, bonito, tuna and various kinds of shark is an attraction since several record breaking weights have been caught. Golf is available all the year round in the Azores and diving, windsurfing and yachting are also very popular activities. Faial is a famous meeting point for trans-Atlantic yachts whose colourful murals brighten up the fortified harbour walls of Horta.

The Azores have not been without environmental problems. For example, the Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel has been suffering from eutrophication brought about by increased human pressure, the intensification of cattle raising and the uncontrolled application of chemicals. Scientists from the University of the Azores have been using a hydrological model and a Geographic Information System to define management criteria of the activities in the watershed in a bid to improve water quality.

The native vegetation is under threat from expanding cattle pastures and introduced species. The hydrangeas introduced from Europe are used very successfully as a 3m hedge around fields, as is the Incenso tree, Pittosporum undulatum, from Australia, used originally to protect the orange orchards. However, both have escaped outside of cultivation with the hydrangeas moving into areas that have been previously disturbed and the Incenso invading into the endemic lowland forest.

The Hottentot fig, Carpobrotus edulis, a creeping succulent with a large yellow flower, appears as a dominant natural plant of the Azores coast, but is in fact an introduced garden plant from South Africa and highly invasive. Among the many other ornamental plants introduced last century to enhance the large private gardens was a relation of the ginger from the Himalaya and a gunnera from South America. The ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum, thrives in the constantly mild Azorean climate and has spread at an alarming rate smothering the native plants in the cloud forest. The Gunnera tinctoria, which looks like a giant form of rhubarb, is a more recent escape but threatens to be as great a problem as the ginger. The search is on to find a suitable herbicide to control these alien species.

Past exploitation of natural resources has left some species reduced to small populations or even individuals. Over the last ten years it is estimated that 50% of the remaining natural areas have been converted to grazing land for dairy cows. The economic stimulus for this was entry into the EU and the availability of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, grants and quotas. There are no national parks in the Azores and a distinct lack of established regulatory agencies to advise upon government and private development projects. Although a number of protected areas featuring habitats and rare species have been established on paper they are lacking appropriate legal protection. It is only recently that steps have been taken to establish an official reserves system together with an integral government conservation policy and strategy. If the Azores are to remain a ‘haven of tranquility’ for both locals and tourists alike it is essential these moves are accelerated.

This article is based on material given to the editor when he visited the Azores earlier this year supported with a grant from the Anglo-Portuguese Exchange Fund of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The help and support of the Regional Director of Tourism and his staff during this visit is also gratefully acknowledged.