I would like to propose that the most modern whitetail land management project of the last decade is not cache food plots or forest watering holes or protection covers, but hinge cuts. Yes, hinge cut.
This popular, quick and dirty method of handling wood has caught fire throughout the whitetail world and has quickly become the do-it-yourself prescription for getting shelter and food on the ground quickly in the woods. In many ways, this is for good reason. It works pretty well and pretty fast. But according to some experts in the field, fashion could also be going too far.
“What you make of a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut,” wrote Richard Powers in his powerful novel “The Overstory.” If that’s true and we’re going to put a chainsaw on a tree or 20 while cutting hinges, we better know what we’re doing and do it right. So here’s a look at how hinge cutting mistakes happen and what we can do to avoid them.
The project and the problem
Hinge cutting, if you’re not in the know, involves cutting small-diameter stands of trees halfway through the trunk and then angling the treetops down parallel to the ground. This accomplishes several beneficial things for deer and wildlife. First, newly felled but still living tree canopies offer food (in the form of leaves or shoots) at deer level, as well as new horizontal cover that provides safety and sleeping habitat. Second, by pulling tree tops back from the canopy, new sunlight can reach the forest floor and catalyze new growth that could eventually provide food and cover as well.
The draw here is that all you need is a chainsaw and safety gear to start improving wildlife habitat in your woods. Hinge cutting requires less time, equipment, and energy than many other wood management options, and for this reason, it is incredibly affordable for homeowners, especially those new to management.
This all sounds great, and in many cases it is. “Hinge cutting definitely provides immediate food and cover,” said Matt Ross, licensed forester and director of conservation for the National Deer Association. “But I wouldn’t apply it with a wide brush.”
Herein lies the rub: As is the case with many fads across the spectrum, the good idea of the hinge cut is sometimes applied haphazardly, without proper training, or in some cases to counterproductive extremes. Because hinge cutting is so easy to test, it is often assumed to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Ross compared the situation to someone trying to lose weight on the latest diet or fad product.
“You really need to have a good plan. You have to watch what you eat and you need to exercise,” Ross said. “You can’t just pick something quick and think it’s going to solve all your problems.” In the case of hinge cutting, this means you need to know the right places to apply it, the right amount to apply it, and the right way to apply it. Doing the opposite could lead to more harm than good.
Hinge-cutting bugs come in many flavors, but here are several that seem to be the most prevalent and damaging.
Random hinge cut
Since hinge cutting seems so straightforward, many aspiring land managers head into the woods with a chainsaw in hand and little more training than a short YouTube video or magazine article. The result is that many hinge cutting applications result in less than desirable results.
One of the most common mistakes first-time hinge cutters make is choosing the wrong hinge cut height or style for their targets, according to Jared Van Hees, Michigan land manager and host of the Habitat Podcast. The recommended height for a hinge cut differs depending on how you want the deer to use the area. “The knee-high cut creates a hinge-cut barricade that the deer won’t want to go through,” Van Hees explained.
This cut can be used in situations where you want to actively deter deer from traveling through an area to provide good access for hunters or safe areas for the wind to blow, but it is not what you want to do if you expect to have a deer sleep or ride there.
Incorrect density of a hinge cutout area or direction of tilt can also be problematic. If you joint too many trees and place them in too many directions, especially if you do it too low, you will create a habitat that deer will never enter or feel trapped inside. “Deer need two or three escape routes at all times to get comfortable with nearby predators,” says Van Hees. “If they feel too pressured or imprisoned, they will avoid the area altogether.”
A higher cut, about chest height, is recommended if your goal is to have deer lie down or feed within your hinged area and be sure to provide openings and exit routes in and around your cut area hinged as well.
New hinge cutters should also be aware that cutting a tree too short or dropping it too abruptly can result in hinged trees not surviving treatment and never providing new crown or trunk growth which, in part, is those that make hinge so beneficial.
“I tend to cut about two-thirds of the tree down and manually force it down to keep the tree from falling over on its own,” Van Hees said. “To increase their survival rate, the hinge itself (the uncut part) needs to remain as large and intact as possible to promote future growth.”
To ensure a less damaging fall, Van Hees sometimes recommends creating a “landing platform” with another tree felled or tied down for the hinged top to rest on.
Too much hinge cut
Matt Ross argues that overuse of the hinge technique is another common problem. Again, due to its quick-fix notoriety and ease of application, hinge cutting is used by many land managers as their only form of wood management and apply it in large areas of forested landscape. The problem is that hinge cutting isn’t always the best tool for the job.
For example, Ross believes hinge-cutting areas may not produce as much high-quality food and bedding in the long run as more traditional practices of thinning or cutting lumber. A hinge application does it it opens the canopy and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor enough to promote new woody browsing. But the still-living treetops of a hinge cut shade large tracts of understory, suppressing growth opportunities. In contrast, a traditional cut that completely removes a tree from the understory and tops will open up the entire forest floor to sunlight and, in Matt’s experience, can grow a more diverse variety of forbes, grasses, and shrubs.
Hinge cut areas will often grow back and become completely shaded again in seven to eight years. The same would be true of a traditional wood cutting area, where the logs have been bucked off and the tops removed, but you can go back much more easily when needed and re-establish that new growth with a brush or other stripping technique. . A hinge cut area will be much more difficult to set back due to its inevitable growth into a nearly impenetrable brush pile of tree trunks and canopies that are difficult to enter with most equipment.
“I don’t think it should be exaggerated,” Ross said. “I would apply it, but the scale and location I applied it to wouldn’t be the majority.”
Ross recommends reserving hinge cutouts for specific small improvements in the bed area or along the edges of fields, food plots, or other transitions. Large-scale improvements to increase bedding or feeding in forested areas should be addressed, where possible, with more traditional woodcutting or thinning. In many cases, this is not only better for the habitat, but also for your long-term timber assets. Many new land managers have placed trees that might one day have commercial value or littered an area so much as to make it difficult to access for future logging.
A land manager’s best friend
A chainsaw has often been called the white-tailed land manager’s best friend, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But all good things can be taken too far. If you plan to try hinge cutting (and please do!), make sure you have a plan in place, follow best practices, and cut carefully.
Featured image via Captured Creative.