The Right and Wrong of Hinge Cutting for Deer Habitat

February 22, 2023 By: Zack Vucurevich
hinge cutting

As I travel the country working with landowners to improve deer herds and habitat, the one management technique I see overused, mismanaged and misunderstood the most is hinge cutting. 

There is a time and a place for hinge cuts. I use this technique frequently on my own hunting land and incorporate some hinge cuts on nearly every management plan I deliver to my clients. But there are drawbacks to the overuse of this technique.

Hinge cutting has a place in every wildlife habitat manager’s toolkit, but I would like to share some guidance on when and where to use this technique.

What is a Hinge Cut?

A hinge cut is designed to get the tree canopy to the forest floor without killing the tree. After cutting most of the way through the trunk, you leave a portion of the trunk intact to act as a hinge as you push the tree over. 

Once hinge cut, a tree will remain alive since the cambium layer, which is responsible for nutrients and water transfer within the plant, remains unbroken. You get immediate cover on the ground, and you maintain some browse at a level deer can reach. What used to be 15 feet in the air is suddenly 3 feet off the ground. You now have food and cover in a spot that previously possessed neither.

hinge cuts
This is an example of hinge cutting used to create a quality bedding thicket. While there is cover, there is also plenty of maneuverability and escape routes for deer.

The Drawbacks of Hinge Cutting

Many forest stand improvement (FSI) projects are difficult to undo. Whether it is a thinning, a bedding thicket, an edge feather, or a hinge cut, it can take years to regenerate a poorly executed cut. 

I see it often with hinge cutting. The landowner will complete a hinge cut along an access trail and then complain about jumping deer every time they try to access their stand. By creating horizontal structure, which is often absent in mismanaged woodlots, they have conditioned the deer to loiter in that location. Unless heavy equipment such as a forestry mulcher or bulldozer is used, the landowner is stuck with the mess until the trees finally succumb to their injuries and are shaded out by the remaining standing timber. 

Once the hinged tree is dead, you then have to wait for the trees themselves to decompose and break down. All in, you could be looking at a 10- to 15-year commitment until the evidence of an ill-advised cut is erased, depending on the species and local conditions.

If there are too many hinged trees in the area and not enough escape routes, you could be serving up deer fawns on a platter as they struggle to escape the mess of tangled, living, hinge-cut trees. 

The next complaint about hinge cuts I hear comes not from the landowners but from the foresters. Let’s say the landowner completes a 1-acre hinge cut project within the boundaries of a future timber harvest. Even if this harvest is 5 to 10 years after the initial hinge cutting took place, the limbs and trunks of the hinged trees are still alive, sturdy, and a nightmare for any logger to safely maneuver around while wielding their saw. It becomes a liability for the landowner, and the logging crews will often leave these sections standing in the name of safety. 

Finally, the biggest mistake I see with any FSI project is invasive species taking over the project site. These intruders are often present at the time the project is executed but simply overlooked. Since these non-natives generally have a longer growing season and a lack of natural enemies, they explode when given more sunlight. Once established, they quickly consume the site and render it impenetrable and virtually useless for deer aside from some occasional browsing along the perimeter. 

The most common culprits are often vining species such as bittersweet, wisteria, kudzu or Japanese honeysuckle, depending on your region of the country, though shrub species such as wineberry, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, Chinese privet and autumn olive can thrive in these disturbed locations as well. Do yourself a favor and take the time to combat these invasive plants before executing an FSI project! A simple foliar spray or cut stump treatment will extend the positive impacts of your efforts. 

Now let’s look at the best use of hinge cuts and the applications I recommend.

Hinge Cuts for Closed Edges

I describe a “closed edge” as a section of trees hinge cut in a row, all hinging the same direction. Whether along a field edge or confined within a woodlot, this technique is a wonderful way to encourage predictable deer movement patterns to get them within range of your stand.

hinge cutting
These trees were hinge cut parallel to the edge of a food plot to block deer travel. This is an example of a “closed edge.”

Hinge Cutting in a Bedding Thicket

Whether you call it a bedding thicket, a micro clear-cut, or a temporary forest opening, we are all talking about the same thing. A change in forest structure encourages sun-loving species to establish and increase the stem density to break up the monotony of the woodlot. 

This is accomplished by opening up the canopy, allowing sunlight to penetrate the forest floor. When executing a bedding-thicket cut, in my opinion your goal should be 80% sun exposure. Of the trees that you cut, no more than 25% of them should be hinged. 

The reason for the handicap on hinged trees is two-fold. These bedding thickets will mature as time passes. They should be maintained every couple of years by treating invasive species, selectively felling trees that begin to shade the site, and observing how much deer use has occurred at the location. The more trees are hinged, the more difficult it is to maneuver within and maintain the site. 

The other reason I discourage too many hinged trees within a bedding thicket is to deter predation. As does become accustomed to bedding within the thicket, they will often leave their fawns unattended as they go about their foraging. If there are too many hinged trees in the area and not enough escape routes, you could be serving up deer fawns on a platter as they struggle to escape the mess of tangled, living, hinge-cut trees. 

Feathering Field Edges

Can’t resist the temptation to plant your food plots right up to the tree line? Consider dropping or hinging a few trees out into the field itself! You can essentially create a “reverse edge-feather” where instead of blending the field edge back into the woodlot, you are pushing the woodlot into the field and creating a buffer strip along the field edge. Because the trees will be lying perpendicular to the field edge instead of parallel to it, I would consider this technique an “open edge” as the deer can maneuver freely across the porous edge. 

Why do I encourage hinging some of these trees as opposed to felling them all into the field? It has to do with the longevity of those horizontal limbs once the tree is on the ground.

The limbs of a felled tree will become brittle and break within a few years of it being on the ground. If that same tree were hinged, and the limbs still living, the twigs and stems will continue to provide perching locations for songbirds. The birds will disperse seeds of trees, shrubs and plants within the structure of the tree top itself, shielding the young plants from predation by deer and allowing them to establish into a young forest or early successional cover, depending on how it is managed. The hinge cut tree acts as a surrogate nursery.

Final Thoughts

As much as I love traveling the country and helping landowners manage their properties for whitetails, my favorite aspect of my job is always seeing the lightbulb turn on when it comes to why we do these management techniques. 

Living in the information age has granted us all access to more resources than we can fully make sense of. You hear someone talk about hinge cutting or planting switchgrass enough times, and you suddenly feel compelled to do the project without fully grasping the lingering effects of your well-intended transformation. 

Considering all of the nuance surrounding these different habitat improvement techniques, having a well-informed plan in place before firing up the saw will save you from wasted time and heartache.

About Zack Vucurevich:

Zack Vucurevich is an NDA member from Lebanon, Tennessee. He's also a wildlife biologist, habitat consultant, Level 2 NDA Deer Steward, and owner of Whetstone Habitat. Contact him at Instagram: @whetstonehabitat