Some of the most serious biologists agree that if they had to choose a single tool for managing and manipulating habitat, it would be a chainsaw. Thankfully we live in a world with more options. The possibilities are virtually endless when you arm a habitat manager with a chainsaw, the right herbicides, and a well-laid plan. This work can make existing trees and foliage healthier, promote the growth of more nutritional and desirable plants, and ultimately make the land more attractive to wildlife.
One critical note, safety is paramount when cutting trees. It can become a matter of life and death in the blink of an eye. You never know precisely where that tree will fall. The proper safety gear is a must to execute these practices effectively. This means wearing chaps, a helmet, hearing protection, and a face shield–not just safety glasses.
The Girdle Cut Girdling a tree can be a great solution when you want to thin an area but don't want immediate ground litter from cutting down a tree completely. A girdle cut is a very shallow slice around the tree's circumference. The key is to saw into the tree's cambium layer, just slightly deeper than the bark. The cambium layer of a tree is where all the nutrients flow, feeding the tree and keeping it alive. Upon cutting, spray the circumference of the cut with a herbicide solution of glyphosate and water. It's essential to spray the cut within a couple of hours of making it. Otherwise, the tree will start to heal, making the herbicide ineffective in killing the tree.
I recommend carrying a spray bottle with you and spraying as you go. If you're treating a large area or more than a few trees, it's helpful to use some bright colored dye or food coloring in the bottle to quickly and easily identify the trees you've treated. The tree starts to die as soon as you spray the herbicide into the cut. Once the tree dies, the dead stem will usually stand for a couple of years but will not grow foliage. More sunlight reaches the floor, encouraging early successional growth for food and better cover for wildlife.
The Hinge Cut The advantages of hinge-cutting trees are plentiful. It provides eye- to ground-level food and habitat where wildlife live. They need head-high cover for bedding and security as well as food. It also lets more sunlight through a more open canopy for early successional growth, more forbs, and nutrient-rich plants deer and other wildlife will eat. It can make bedding areas more attractive and useful. Like any management practice, there's a time and place for hinge cutting. Proper technique and execution are essential.
Not all trees are appropriate or safe to hinge cut. Consider alternate management techniques like felling or girdling if the wood is too brittle and prone to cracking, splitting, or breaking. No tree or management is worth risking your or anyone else's safety. Do your research through professional wildlife biologist resources, such as the National Deer Association, for tips on the best trees to hinge cut. When selecting trees, it's best to only cut ones of a size you can confidently control the landing. The goal is to cut the tree such that it falls over while still leaving enough of the cambium layer attached or hooked to the main stem, keeping the tree alive and producing foliage for seasons to come.
I prefer to cut waist- to chest-high on the tree when hinge-cutting. Cut straight in about 75% through, leaving enough fiber and sapwood to keep the tree alive for multiple seasons. Angled or 45-degree cuts are not favorable for hinge cuts. These cuts promote dangerous kickbacks, and it's easier to go too deep into the tree and damage the cambium layer.
Felling “Felling a tree” is a fancy way to say cutting a tree down. Carefully assess where you want the tree to fall and ensure the surroundings will allow it to fall there. Let gravity help you out and cut the tree with the way it naturally leans if possible.
Once you've determined the direction the tree will likely drop, cut a horizontal notch about a quarter of the way into the tree on the side of the fall direction. For larger diameter trees (15 inches or more) it's wise to cut out a wedge by placing a diagonal plunge cut a couple of inches below the notch. Then cut through to the wedge through the other side of the tree. Once the tree starts to fall slowly, step away and let gravity take it down.
Big or small, once the tree is down, you have options. You can leave the stump untreated, allowing new stems to sprout that can be attractive and nutrient-rich food for wildlife, depending on the tree species. Otherwise, use the glyphosate and water mixture to spray around the cambium layer of the stump, ultimately killing the tree and root system.
Freature image via Captured Creative.