Move to cover, keep deer near
May 13, 2011 by
A few years back, Dick Kipp noticed that the grass in one of his fields was getting a little sparse, thanks to the shade cast from a grove of 50-60 ash trees that were 6-8 inches in diameter. He also knew that his nearby woodlot lacked understory that could potentially keep deer in the area.
Kipp could see plenty of deer marching through his Calhoun County property on their way to a swamp across the road. The problem was just that: They were moving through.
So Kipp, of Marshall, enlisted the help of a forester and developed a plan. The plan included hinge-cutting all those spindly ash trees and thinning out the canopy in the woodlot so that sunlight could reach the ground (turns out his plan was aided by emerald ash borer, which killed off many of the bigger trees in the woodlot). That allowed grass and shrubs to start growing again, and within a couple years both his field and his woods were gnarled with thick underbrush that’s almost impossible to walk through.
And man, did the deer hunting improve. A few years back Kipp, with a clear view, could only watch as deer came onto his property and promptly left. Now his tree stands overlook bedding cover that’s so thick he won’t even go in it for fear of spooking out any of several large bucks that call it home. In the morning they come in and lie down. In the evening they stand back up and head out. It’s their home.
Then last fall came the coup de grace: Kipp’s son-in-law Brian VanDorsten arrowed a 16-point monster that scored 180-plus on its way out after bedding in the woods. Yes, those very same woods that Kipp could see all the way across just a few short years ago, even in summer.
“(VanDorsten) just happened to get in there without that buck knowing it,” Kipp said back in November 2010. “Even now you can move around the outside of those woods without them seeing you. It’s that thick in there. And when he saw that deer all he could see was the rack. That’s how tall some of that stuff is.”
Many deer hunters know how to attract deer with food sources such as food plots. But what Kipp’s story demonstrates is the value of giving deer a reason to stick around. And with techniques such as hinge cutting, timber stand improvement and strategic shrub plantings, you can supplement those ever-important food attractions by providing thick cover as well. And if you do it right, you can see that those deer you’re working so hard to attract have very little reason to leave at all.
Hinge-cutting is the act of cutting partway through a tree’s trunk but not all the way, creating a “hinge” that allows the tree to fall but still maintain a living connection between its leaf canopy and its root system. That connection allows the tree to continue to produce leaves (and mast, in some cases), but they’re produced at ground level where deer can browse then and use them for the thick cover that makes them feel safe. In most cases a hinge-cut tree will only survive for 5-7 years, but by then some of the other benefits of hinge-cutting become well-established.
For one, many hinge-cut deciduous trees will send out roots that in turn produce new saplings, or send out suckers from the original base. That turns a ground-level treetop into a tangled mass of new growth from one end of the original tree to the other. It’s just the kind of heavy stuff that makes deer feel nice and safe, according the Matt Ross, a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester who works for the Quality Deer Management Association.
“Think about a wind storm where trees tip over and you’ve got a treetop on the ground. It creates a visual barrier,” he said. “Deer are like bass: You hear bass fishermen talking about how bass like structure under water. Deer like structure on the ground. Picture a clear cut where trees are laying down. When you walk in there you expect to jump deer. With hinge-cutting you’re mechanically making that happen.” With some forethought, it’s possible to create impassably thick cover that moves deer exactly where you want them, say, directly under a treestand that’s easy to sneak into or one that’s favorable in prevailing winds.
But hinge-cutting has other benefits besides cover. All that growth, new and old, produces succulent leaf buds and young branches that deer and other animals relish. “Anyone who cuts trees down in the winter knows that if you come back the next day you can see that the deer have been eating the buds,” Ross said.
So which trees to hinge cut? As a forester, Ross builds timber value into his plans. There is cash value in straight-trunked hardwoods such as oaks and cherries, so turning them into deer food may not be their best use. That’s also true of any oak tree is a good acorn producer: Why shorten its life when it’s already an outstanding food source for wildlife? But that’s not to say oaks are completely off limits. If you have a healthy oak tree that’s a steady acorn producer and a smaller oak tree 20 yards away that produces less, has a crooked trunk or a lot of branches, hinge-cut away. In addition to providing food and cover for deer, you’re likely giving the stronger tree a better chance to produce and reducing the likelihood that your woodlot will become an oak monoculture.
Other species to consider for hinge-cutting are those that aren’t worth much as timber but are highly valued for their browse. Red maple (also known as soft maple) and aspen are two of those found in Michigan, but Ross adds one caution: Do not consider this advice to hinge-cut every red maple or aspen on your property. Diversity of vegetation is critical to ensuring diversity of wildlife. Deer eat a widely varied diet, so it’s best not to limit their options.
“Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to wildlife management, and deer certainly benefit from diversity,” Ross said. “They are creatures of the edge. If you can have a property that’s a mixture of cultivated field, CRP land, young forest, mid-age forest and mature forest, that mixture of habitat types is ideal for white-tailed deer.”
Before you run out with a chainsaw and start hinge-cutting trees on your property, it is crucial to know exactly what you have there. If you have a small population of invasive shrubs or other plants on your property, showing them the light through hinge-cutting could turn your property into an ecological disaster.
“Hinge cutting doesn’t always result in a great thing,” said Lindsey Thomas Jr. of QDMA. “If you have invasive species on hand and hinge-cutting just brings up something like autumn olive, you’re in a worse situation than you started in.”
Over the years Michigan has been invaded by a number of undesirable shrubs, including autumn olive, multiflora rose, barberry, buckthorn, bittersweet and bush honeysuckle. If they’re present when you open up the canopy, it won’t be long before they start taking the place over and crowding out the stuff you wanted. Left unchecked they can turn a property into a monoculture where nothing else grows.
“Those species are there for a reason: They can outcompete what else is there,” Ross said. “They prevent other species from growing and they’re hard to control. They take away from diversity and they take away the control of the landowner.”
Ross recommends before you make any drastic changes to a property, you enlist the services of a licensed forester to develop a management plan for your property or to at the very least get an inventory of what’s growing there. A management plan isn’t cheap – expect it to cost $300-$400 or more, depending on who you hire and what you ask them to do. But the benefits of a 15-20 year management plan will yield for a lifetime, whether you want to manage the property for deer, timber, the long-range benefit of your grandchildren or a combination of all three.
With your goals in mind, a forester can tell you which trees to cut, which trees to save, where your food sources are and which areas are most likely to turn into good bedding cover. Once he knows what you want, a forester can look at what you have and recommend the best way to shape things your wayy.
“First thing I’m doing when I go on any property is looking up,” he said. “I’m probably missing shed antlers left and right because of that. But I want to know what species of trees are there, and as the forester I want to know why are those there? What has happened here before? Why is it hardwood, why is it pine, what can I do to manipulate that? I want to create desired species on the ground, but I also want to keep the remaining trees healthy. Maybe I can make the landowner some money. You can manage for good revenue, but you can also have good situation for wildlife and deer hunting.”
It’s also possible to plant for cover using shrubs, grasses and coniferous trees. The latter can be used to provide windbreaks and winter cover, or to keep your property away from prying eyes, while the others can create long-term thickets that deer love.
“Certainly if someone is looking at increasing their cover as the primary objective, they should be looking more toward shrubs than trees because they will stay ground cover a lot longer,” he said.
It’s always preferable to use native shrubs, and most will also provide food for deer and other wildlife, Ross said. Shrubs like elderberry, highbush cranberry and red-osier dogwood produce berries or browse that wildlife devour.
Other shrubs like spicebush don’t do much for deer nutritionally but grow into thickets that provide outstanding cover. And in a place where deer numbers are already significant, that strategy may be required, Ross said. Sometimes plants that deer like to eat have a difficult time getting established.
“Spicebush is great for cover,” Ross said. “It produces fruit but it’s not really browsed by deer, and sometimes that’s an objective, especially in a place where it’s hard to get things started. Spicebush grows very thick. It’s great.”
One disadvantage to planting is the cost. Seedlings can get expensive when you’re talking about 50 or 100 plants it would take to start a good thicket. But there are ways around that, Ross said. For one thing, it’s important to know what you have before you decide what comes down or what goes up. It’s entirely possible that hinge-cutting the right tree could unleash a whole colony of something that’s already in place but struggling in the shade, which means you may not have to plant in the first place.
But if you decide that planting is necessary, cost can still come down. Check with your local county conservation district and see what’s planned for its fall or spring plant sale. In most cases you’ll find native trees and shrubs being sold as bare-root stock, which is much less expensive. For example, this spring the Washtenaw County Conservation District sold bareroot spicebush, elderberry and red-osier dogwood for about $1 each in lots of 25 or about 60 cents each in lots of 100.
And if you’re industrious you can go even cheaper. Many native species like red-osier dogwood can be grown from cuttings that you take yourself. Then the cost is simply your time and effort, plus a few bucks for a root-enhancing hormone to get the cuttings started.
Ross also said once you know what types of shrubs you already have, it’s a good idea to focus your planting attention on what you don’t have. For instance, if your property already has red-osier dogwood and highbush cranberry, you’d gain less benefit by planting more of those things. Instead, give the deer something else like elderberry or American plum. “It’s the same thing as with food plots,” Ross said. “You want to try to change it up and give them something that’s not always available to them. It gives them a reason to visit your property at different times of year.”