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Deer Habitat Improvement: Hinge Cutting

We are in the pre-spring phase of the offseason in the world of whitetail-deer hunting. For those that get a thrill from chasing mature gobblers, this time of year is a welcome relief from not running around the woods since the end of deer season. However, if you manage your hunting land for better deer hunting, this is not the offseason. In fact, there is something to be done year-round to improve the hunting on your land where deer are concerned.

Recently I was on our Borrowed Acres Farm hunting property in central Alabama chasing gobblers in the morning with my 5-year-old son who was on spring break. We got lucky the first morning out and scored on a nice mature gobbler. We even got a little fishing in while we were there, too. However, I spent a considerable amount of time improving bedding cover and native browse for deer on the property.

The Borrowed Acres property has set idle for more than a decade. Just last summer myself, the landowner, my brother and a good friend began managing the 200-acre property for deer and turkey hunting. First, we cleared a few areas to plant food plots for hunting season. After spending the last deer season hunting the land we learned a lot about deer movement and how our hunting pressure was affecting the deer. Once the dead of winter set in and the woods were bare of greenery, we noticed that there was very little bedding cover on the property. Areas that looked thick in the summer were noticeably bare during winter. We also realized that most of the deer we saw were passing through the property heading to thicker cover on neighboring land.

The property consists of mature oaks and pines. However, over the last decade with no timber stand improvement taking place many undesirable saplings have filled in under the opened canopy of the mature pines. All these saplings are blocking sunlight from getting to the forest floor where briars, grasses, honeysuckle and many other native forbs and plants grow. These plants that are not able to grow make up a considerable portion of a deer’s diet, but also serve as prime bedding cover, which our property lacks.

Hinge Cutting

The quickest and least expensive way for us to remedy this problem was to come in this late winter and spring and start hinge cutting the saplings. Prescribed fire is a great tool to clear saplings and promote desirable plant growth, but many of these trees had more than a decade of growth and were too large for a fire to kill them like we needed. Moving forward, we’ll be able to use fire to keep the succession of these areas young and attractive to deer and nesting turkeys.

Hinge cutThe first area we selected for hinge cutting is roughly a 9-acre block on the south side of the property. We have a linear food plot in this area with a couple-acre pond bordering it on the north. Years ago a large portion of pines in this area were infected with pine beetles and the landowner had a bunch of the pines cut down to stop the beetles from destroying more timber. In the several years following this pine thinning the briars and honeysuckle and other native plants thrived in the sun-drenched section, creating an awesome bedding area for deer. More than 10 years later the forest floor is bare and the area is chocked with sweet gum, poplar and other undesirable saplings. We began our hinge-cutting efforts on the northeast side of the section and started working southwest.

Hinge cutting is merely using a chainsaw or any cutting tool to cut 3/4s of the way through a tree at a 45-degree angle and letting the tree fall while still being attached to the stump. Not only does this immediately open up the canopy to allow sunlight to the forest floor, but also by leaving the tree attached to the stump it allows the tree to continue to live and grow tender new branches, which deer can now easily browse. The tree also becomes a living brush pile where deer feel safe bedding in and around. Hinge-cut trees might live for a few years or even longer. The more bark and stem that you can keep attached the better the tree will survive. Hinge cutting in the dormant season is best because it keeps the tree from being stressed from injury during the hot summer months when rain might be farther and fewer between.

Most folks use hinge cutting in small areas to create micro-bedding areas around food plots. We were using it on a larger scale to open up the canopy and allow sunlight to grow the desirable forbs and plants that will create a larger bedding area. We also cut down a number of smaller saplings so they would go ahead and begin decomposing. With so many saplings to get rid of, we had plenty of bigger trees to do the hinge cutting on. In 4 to 5 years we’ll run a prescribed fire through the area to start the process over again. This is how you maintain good bedding cover on the property to keep more deer living on the land instead of walking through it. The more areas of varying successional growth you can have, the better habitat you’ll be providing for the deer.

I’ll post an update later in the growing season to show how effective our hinge cuts were in growing a living brush pile for deer on the property.

Photo Credit: Kelley Olis

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