March 25, 2023
By Josh Honeycutt
Hinge-cutting is a big-time buzz word in the world of modern deer hunting land management. For those unfamiliar with it, hinge-cutting is the practice of felling trees, but without cutting completely through the tree. Instead of cutting all the way through, a cut is made 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through the trunk, which allows the tree to fall while a portion of the downed trunk remains attached to the stump. This keeps the tree alive, which offers eye-level food and bedding cover for whitetails.
While that sounds great, and in many instances it can be, hinge-cutting can have a dark side. Done incorrectly, it can lead to irreversible harm to yourself or the landscape; and, unfortunately, there is plenty of bad advice out there on hinge-cutting. In turn, people use this tool without proper education, knowledge and planning.
Most proponents of the practice talk only about the good side of hinge-cutting, which certainly matters. Hinge-cutting is often sold as a fast and effective method to improve habitat. It’s a cheap way to achieve big goals. Still, it requires a firm understanding of deer bedding behaviors, feeding habits, watering habits, geographical tendencies and use of travel routes. So, here are the good, bad and ugly sides of hinge-cutting.
There are several good reasons to want to hinge-cut. First is properly and responsibly hinge-cutting to create bedding cover. This is an effective way to accomplish this task. How-ever, the right tree species must be hinged in the right manner, in the right location and in the correct configuration.
Another good motivation for why a landowner would consider hinge-cutting is for food sources. This is a fast way to offer immediate and future food within the deer zone. This much-needed browse can boost a deer’s access to quality food, which can attract deer and help the local herd be healthier.
The third good reason is for screening cover. Hinging trees along food plots can make deer feel safer using the plots during daylight. Done correctly, these also shield a hunter’s approach and departure to stand locations. Hinge-cutting along entry and exit routes can accomplish the same. That said, these tend to only last for a few years before breaking down and offering less cover. So, use this tactic sparingly, as it is a short-term solution. And don’t use it when or where long-term solutions — such as planting native grass stands — is an option.
Naturally, if done right, hinge-cutting can be beneficial for whitetails. It also benefits other wildlife species, like ground-nesting birds. Rabbits do well, too. Truthfully, all game animals can benefit from it.
Hinge-cutting isn’t all good, however; especially if done improperly and beyond moderation. There can be numerous short- to mid-term negative effects, which leads into the bad side of hinge-cutting. If done improperly, or without specific goals and objectives in mind, it can cause significant damage to the property. This certainly goes against the intended efforts of hinge-cutting to begin with.
Those who aren’t hinge-cutting with a specific purpose that works with the overall management plan shouldn’t be doing so. And, like I mentioned above, having good reasons isn’t enough to justify hinge-cutting. Too often hunters hinge-cut for a good reason, only to realize where and how they hinge-cut doesn’t fit into the larger picture of what they need to do to enhance the property, boost wildlife value and to increase hunt-ability. Instead it’s vital to study a map of the property, brainstorm all land management efforts that will go into the overall plan, and then determine if hinge-cutting meshes with the remainder of the plan.
Anyone who hinge-cuts should understand the difference between native and invasive species. This counts for types of trees, as well as diseases, fungi and insects that impact them. For example, hinge-cutting certain trees at certain times can introduce new or promote existing unwanted diseases, fungi and insects. Many of these are commonly problematic, even more so when improper hinge-cutting commences.
Another bad aspect of hinge-cutting is doing so without searching for a better option. Other methods exist for managing timber. Sometimes, those are the superior options to this ever-increasingly-popular tree management tactic.
Obviously, those who aren’t equipped with the proper knowledge or tools shouldn’t attempt this technique. If you can’t name the tree species you’re cutting, that isn’t good. No hinge-cutting should occur without a knowledge of what tree species should be hinged and which ones should not. Furthermore, you should have the ability to identify trees in the field before any hinging is considered. You don’t want to start sawing through a valuable tree that would bring hundreds or thousands of dollars at market.
Similarly, those dealing with younger trees often make more hinge-cutting mistakes. It’s easier to misidentify tree species when they are younger, and if you’re focusing on cutting these younger trees, it can negatively impact the timber’s future ecological and financial value.
Of course, as with anything, there are few absolutes in hinge-cutting. For example, while one wouldn’t want to hinge-cut valuable tree species, such as a sugar maple, it might be a good thing to do in moderation if the timber is very dense; and a light thinning will help the rest of the marketable trees to thrive.
All things considered, there are even worse sides to hinge-cutting, and some are truly ugly.
In addition to short- and mid-term problems, there are bigger is-sues, which brings us to the ugly side of hinge-cutting: the long-term detriments. Unfortunately, there are no mulligans in tree cutting, including hinge-cutting. Whether it be your safety or the quality of your hunting land, there is no second or third take. Hinge-cutting trees without the proper knowledge, tools and safety measures can be disastrous or fatal to both you and your hunting land.
Cutting one or two of the wrong trees won’t hurt much. Doing an extensive hinge-cut and removing valuable trees to wildlife and your pocket will lead to significant harm. This isn’t something that can be fixed in a few months or a few years. A bad hinge-cutting mistake can take 10 or more years to see the beginnings of a rebound.
First, cutting mast trees that deer rely on minimizes the fall and winter food sources available on the whitetail’s landscape. This isn’t good. In fact, it can get ugly very quickly. If managing a small property, it leads to deer migrating to neighboring tracts. If managing large tracts, it can lead to greatly diminished health or starvation in extreme cases.
While it’s possible to manage timber for both future tree harvests and wildlife value, it’s a very difficult and fine line to walk. Often-times, these two objectives can conflict, and optimizing both sides of that coin requires a special skillset and a lot of careful planning.
Finally, safety concerns are nothing to cast aside. As said, hinge-cutting can be dangerous business, especially if lacking an understanding of how it should be completed safely. There are many mistakes you can make (too many for this article), but some are riskier than others.
For example, hinge-cutting isn’t for trees of all sizes. Large trees should not be hinge-cut, as it’s too dangerous to those involved. Most experts do not recommend hinge-cutting trees over 8 inches in diameter, but even these can cause harm.
Another safety concern is making higher cuts. The higher you cut on the tree trunk, the more risk of an injury. Most professionals prefer cuts around waist level, or slightly higher. These are more manageable with less risk.
Overall, we’ve barely scratched the surface of hinge-cutting. Still, whether a landowner decides to implement hinge-cutting or not, is entirely their own call. But it’s important to understand the pros and cons, as well as the risks and rewards, of using this habitat management strategy. Once these things are considered, and the individual is aware of proper safety procedures, perhaps it’s time to hinge-cut. But perhaps it’s not. Each situation is unique.