I’d like to propose that the trendiest whitetail land management project of the last decade is not hidey hole food plots or back-in-the-woods water holes or screening cover, but hinge cutting. Yes, hinge cutting.
This popular, quick-and-dirty timber management method has caught fire across the whitetail world and has rapidly become the DIY go-to prescription for getting cover and food on the ground in the woods fast. In many ways, this is for good reason. It works pretty well and pretty darn quickly. But according to some experts in the field, the fad might also be going too far.
“What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down,” wrote Richard Powers in his powerful novel "The Overstory." If that’s true and we’re going to put a chainsaw to a tree or 20 while hinge cutting, we damn well better know what we’re doing and do it right. So here’s a look at how hinge cutting mistakes occur and what we can do to negate them.
The Project and the Problem Hinge cutting, if you’re not in the know, involves cutting clusters of small-diameter trees partway through the trunk and then leaning the treetops down parallel to the ground. This achieves several things beneficial to deer and wildlife. First, the newly lowered but still living treetops offer food (in the form of leaves or buds) at deer level, as well as new horizontal cover that provides security and bedding habitat. Secondly, upon removal of those treetops from the canopy new sunlight can reach the forest floor and catalyze new growth that might eventually provide food and cover as well.
The appeal here is that all you need is a chainsaw and safety equipment to get started improving wildlife habitat in your woods. Hinge cutting requires less time, equipment, and energy than many other timber management options, and for this reason, it’s incredibly accessible for landowners, especially those newer to management.
This all sounds great, and in many cases it is. “Hinge cutting definitely does provide food and cover immediately,” licensed forester and National Deer Association Director of Conservation Matt Ross said. “But I wouldn’t apply it with a broad brush.”
Here lies the problem: As is the case with many fads across the spectrum, the good idea of hinge cutting is sometimes applied haphazardly, without proper training, or in some cases, to self-defeating extremes. Because hinge cutting is so easy to try, it’s often assumed to be a single silver bullet solution to all problems. Ross compared the situation to that of someone attempting to lose weight with the latest new fad diet or product.
“You really need to have a good plan. You’ve got to look at what you eat, and you need to exercise,” Ross said. “You can’t just pick something up 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 to, and the right way to do that. To do otherwise might lead to more harm than good.
Hinge cutting mistakes come in many flavors, but here are several that seem to be most prevalent and damaging.
Haphazard Hinge Cutting Given that hinge cutting seems so straightforward, many aspiring land stewards head to the woods with a chainsaw in hand and little more training than a quick YouTube video or magazine article. The result is that many hinge cut applications result in less than desirable results.
One of the most common errors made by first-time hinge cutters is choosing the wrong hinge cut height or style for their goals, according to Jared Van Hees, a Michigan land manager and host of the Habitat Podcast. The recommended height for a hinge cut differs depending on how you want deer utilizing the area. “Knee-high cutting creates a hinge cut barricade that deer will not want to travel across,” Van Hees explained.
This cut can be used in situations where you want to actively discourage deer from traveling through an area to provide good hunter access or safe zones for the wind to blow, but it’s not what you want to do if you’re hoping to have a deer bed or travel there.
The wrong density of a hinge cut area or direction of lean can also be problematic. If you hinge too many trees and lay them in too many directions, especially if done at a low height, you’ll create a habitat that deer either will never enter or feel trapped inside of. “Deer need two to three escape routes at all times to feel comfortable with predators nearby,” says Van Hees. “If they feel too pressured or imprisoned, they will avoid the area completely.”
A higher cut, about chest height, is recommended if your goal is to get deer to bed or feed within your hinged area and be sure to provide openings and exit routes within and around your hinge cut zone too.
New hinge cutters also need to be aware that cutting too far through a tree or letting it fall too abruptly can lead to hinged trees not surviving the treatment and never again providing the new growth from their tops or trunks that, in part, are what make hinging so beneficial.
“I tend to cut roughly two-thirds through the tree and manually force it over to avoid the tree falling on its own,” Van Hees said. “To increase your survival rate, the hinge itself (uncut portion) needs to remain as large and intact as possible to promote future growth.”
To ensure a less damaging fall, Van Hees recommends sometimes creating a “landing pad” with another tree felled or tied down for the hinged top to rest on.
Too Much Hinge Cutting Matt Ross contends that the overutilization of the hinging technique is another common problem. Again, because of its quick fix notoriety and its ease of application, many land managers use hinge cutting as their only form of timber management and apply it across large tracts of timbered landscape. The problem is that hinge cutting is not always the best tool for the job.
For example, Ross believes that hinge cut areas may not produce as much high quality, long-term food and bedding as more traditional timber thinning or cutting practices. A hinge application does open the canopy and gets sunlight to the forest floor enough to promote new woody browse. But the still-alive treetops of a hinge cut do shade out large stretches of understory which suppresses growth opportunities. Conversely, a traditional cut that fully removes a tree from the over and understory will open the entire forest floor to sunlight and in Matt’s experience, can grow a more diverse array of forbes, grasses, and shrubs.
Hinge cut areas will often regrow and fully shade out again in seven to eight years. The same would happen with a traditional timber cut area, where trunks have been bucked and tops have been removed, but you can much more easily come back in when necessary and set that new growth back with a brush hog or other brush busting 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 tops that’s hard to enter with most equipment.
“I do not think it should be overdone,” Ross said. “I would apply it, but the scale and location that I applied it to would not be the majority.”
Ross recommends reserving hinge cuts for small specific bedding area improvements or along edges of fields, food plots, or other transitions. Large-scale improvements to increase bedding or feeding in wooded areas should instead be addressed, if at all possible, with a more traditional timber cut or thinning. This is not only better for habitat in many cases but also better for your long-term timber assets. Many a new land manager has hinged trees that might someday have had commercial value or mucked up an area so much as to make it difficult for future logging access.
A Land Manager’s Best Friend A chainsaw has often been called the whitetail 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 the best practices, and cut with care.
Feature image via Captured Creative.