Wildlife in Mind: February 2010

Cut trees to release fruit-producing trees and hinge-cut for improved thick habitat.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | February 9, 2010

A lot of hunters and habitat managers already own one of the best pieces of habitat-improvement equipment money can buy and don’t even know it. It’s their chainsaw. Good for much more than keeping the hunting camp supplied with firewood, a chainsaw ranks right up there with your food-plot equipment for its ability to create forage for deer. And unlike disk harrows, your chainsaw can create bedding and escape cover, too. There are other talents you probably didn’t know your chainsaw possesses, and February is a good time to find out about them.

Releasing Fruit-Producing Trees.

Remember our ground rules for Wildlife in Mind? One of them is that we won’t spend a lot of money if we can help it. Another is that we’ll cover techniques you can use even if you don’t own the land where you hunt. Releasing fruit trees meets both requirements.

By “releasing” fruit trees, I mean that you use a chainsaw to remove competing plants from around established trees with the potential to produce mast. We save money because we aren’t buying tree seedlings, and we save time because many suppressed fruit trees will begin producing more fruit as soon as they receive adequate sunlight and space to grow.

Once you learn to recognize common fruit-tree species, you will probably begin to find them where you hunt (Invest in a good field guide to tree species if you need one). I’m talking about naturally occurring species like native crabapples and American persimmons, but apples and pears found growing around old homesites are often good candidates for release. These trees are all established and growing but have been overtaken and outcompeted by other nearby trees that are faster growing. In these conditions, the fruit trees will go on growing slowly in the shade of their competitors, struggling along with minimal sunlight, competing for limited soil nutrients and moisture. They survive, but they don’t thrive, and fruit production is poor or absent. Without room to branch out and form a healthy crown, they don’t have the capacity to produce much fruit anyway. You can change all this easily.

You probably already know the locations of fruit-producing trees you’ve spotted where you hunt. If not, spend the next year looking for suppressed fruit trees when it is easy to identify them, either by leaves, flowers or fruit, and mark them with flagging tape or on your GPS unit so you can find them later. Turkey season is a great time to spot crabapples while they are in bloom and the white/pink flowers are easily noticed. Persimmons are also easy to recognize in the growing season by their distinctive glossy green leaves, which usually feature black splotches. However, persimmons can also be identified by their bark, which is very dark and deeply checkered on medium-sized to large trees. These trunks will stand out among many other species of trees once you know what you are looking for. You’re especially fortunate if you spot a struggling persimmon that has a few fruits on it because you know this tree is a female (individual persimmon trees may be male or female, and only females bear fruit).

To “release” these trees, cut down and kill any shrubs, vines or surrounding trees that block sunlight or compete for crown space or moisture and nutrients in soil. Give your tree full sunlight if possible. To go the extra mile, come back during the growing season with a backpack sprayer and kill ground-level vegetation with a contact herbicide like glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). Each tree will respond immediately to the newly available sunlight, putting on new growth in the first year. Fruit is produced by flowers, and the more branches and limbs a tree has, the more flowers it can produce. As a tree expands to fill the space you have created for it, the result will be increased fruit production. Check back annually, because competitors will rebound. Some competitors like sweetgums will rebound through aggressive stump sprouts, but you can prevent this by painting the freshly cut stump with a herbicide labeled for this application. Glyphosate and triclopyr (Garlon, and other brand names) are two options, but the actual herbicide you use will depend on the species you’re trying to kill. Consult the label before you buy.

If you lease hunting land, obviously you will need permission from the landowner to cut down trees. Let them know your plan, your goal and as many specifics as you can offer. Let them know you will cut only low-quality tree species like sweetgums. If you offer a detailed, written plan, making it clear that you are sensitive to the landowner’s concerns, chances are you will be given permission. After all, you are making an improvement to their property.

Releasing old apple and pear trees is a similar process: Remove all competitors for sunlight and nutrients. Additionally, these trees may need pruning if they have been neglected for a long time. The idea with pruning apples and pears is to leave “scaffold” layers of main branching limbs coming off the trunk with plenty of air and space between the layers and among the limbs coming off these main branches. Allowing light and air to infiltrate the tree’s crown will encourage flowering and discourage diseases like fireblight. If you notice diseased or deformed limbs, prune these, as well.

A proper hinge cut.


While you’ve got the chainsaw out and warmed up, let’s use it to create some forage as well as some bedding and escape cover. You can do this simply by selectively removing tree species with little wildlife or timber value, like maples, elms, sweetgums, poplars and others. The sunlight that reaches the ground will fuel new plant growth for cover and forage. You can also use your saw to girdle standing trees—cutting a complete circle around the trunk that penetrates the cambium layer—and kill them without dropping them.

The resulting “snag” creates wildlife habitat of another kind, and it will be especially attractive to cavity-nesting birds, like wood ducks. Some tree species are easier to kill than others with girdling; double-girdling helps, but a few trees, like sweetgums and poplars, can even survive double-girdling.

New vertical stems growing from the horizontal trunk of a maple tree that was hinge-cut one year before this photo was taken. The vertical growth provides browse for deer.

But another technique has become popular lately, and it is my favorite method for creating cover. It’s called a hinge-cut. Saplings are cut halfway through and allowed to fall over, swinging on the “hinge” that you did- n’t cut. The hinge will continue to supply water and nutrients to the fallen top, keeping it alive. When the growing season starts again, the fallen top will leaf out, and new vertical growth will emerge from the trunk. The combination of the fallen tree’s structure, the new tree growth, and new ground- level growth encouraged by sunlight creates a tangled thicket of cover and forage for deer and other wildlife.

Hinge cuts should be conducted now, during the dormant season, since some trees wouldn’t survive being cut like this during the growing season. Making a hinge-cut is fairly simple. Cut at an angle down through a tree’s trunk until you can push the tree over to the ground. Sometimes the “hinge” will break when the tree falls, especially with larger trees. That’s okay. You’ve still admitted sunlight, and if the tree is a species that deer will browse, like maples and poplars, they’ll feed on the stump sprouts. The best candidates for hinge-cutting are less than 6 or 8 inches in diameter.

I like to make the cuts at about waist height just because it’s a comfortable and safe height for holding my saw. There’s no minimum or maximum area for a hinge-cut; even two or three trees dropped in a small spot will create a place for deer to bed and browse. Hinge-cuts can be linear, like along the edges of food plots to enhance screening cover and forage. Or they can be broad and cover a large area, like in a spot you plan to designate as a “sanctuary” where deer are not disturbed. They can be used to thicken up cover in bottlenecks and travel corridors to encourage more use by deer, along hunter-access routes to screen your own movements in and out of stand sites, or even near property boundaries or public roads to help increase ground-level vegetation and screen your land.

Before you crank the saw to start hinge-cutting trees, remember your habitat plan—the high-altitude view of how you want your hunting land to function. Your habitat plan creates a system of predominant travel routes, feeding areas and bedding areas for deer and other wildlife, and it includes ways for you to hunt these features without disrupting their function. Choose your hinge-cut sites carefully to achieve these broader goals.

Chainsaw Safety: Proper Gear

I never use my chainsaw without wearing my safety chaps, gloves and helmet. The helmet includes built-in ear protection and a visor to protect my face. Recently, a friend borrowed my chainsaw, but he laughed and said he didn’t need the chaps or helmet when I offered them. I agree, these bright orange chaps and visored helmet are not the coolest outfit you can be seen in. I made him take them anyway.

When I got them back, I noticed a tear in the chaps, which are designed to bind the chain and stop it should the saw contact your leg. When I asked about the tear, my friend admitted he had accidentally hit his leg with the saw, but the chaps saved him. Suffice it to say there’s no excuse for not owning and using this safety gear every time you use your saw.

A few basic rules include never hold the saw over shoulder height to make a cut, and never crank it while holding it in your hand (place it on he ground, put your boot in the handle, then crank it). Always be conscious of the “nose” of the saw bar – “kick-back” happens when the nose contacts wood while the chain is running, and kickback is the most common way people are injured and even killed by their own saws. If your saw doesn’t have a nose guard to help prevent kickback, buy one.

I’ve come to see my chainsaw as my most versatile tool for habitat improvement, but it is also a tool that can quickly take all the fun out of wildlife management—if you aren’t careful and safe.

Editor’s Note: Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of QDMA’ s Quality Whitetails magazine and co-editor of the book Quality Food Plots.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.