Why Your Property Needs Snags – Plus Tips to Get Started with Snags
In this episode, we’re going to look at why your property needs snags. Often people don’t like keeping around dead trees—aka snags. But snags are critical to supporting all sorts of wildlife that you know and love. From owls to woodpeckers, and even native bees if you want to support wildlife snags are a great option.
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Keeping dead trees around on your property might seem like a strange thing to do. Most of the time people clear dead trees away.
But dead standing trees also known as snags are critical for wildlife and without them, lots of different types of wildlife won’t be able to survive on your property.
If you ever visit an old-growth forest here in western Washington you will see lots of very large snags and downed logs. Old stories from the first loggers that visited these forests talk about only being able to walk through the forest by walking on the logs.
There weren’t any clear paths on the forest floor so the logs were the only paths through the forest.
And snags were far more common in these forests too back then.
The result was a forest with a mixed canopy—one with large trees mixed in with smaller ones and then scattered openings that let light reach the forest floor.
This mosaic pattern of large trees, small trees, a closed canopy, open areas, downed logs, snags, and small clearings supported a vast range of wildlife.
Far more than our much more uniformed managed forests of today.
And chances are today you don’t live in an area with old-growth forests. If your property is like the one I live on it was historically forested but was cleared some time in the past.
While digging ponds on my property I’ve found old large red cedar roots buried in the field just below a black and red layer marking where the old forest was cleared and then burned to make a field.
This probably happened a good 100 years or so in the past.
I can’t bring back that old-growth forest with a small stream and towering red cedars. But I can help to bring back part of the habitat that wildlife needs to thrive by adding snags to my property.
In return that diversity of wildlife will help make the land more abundant for my family and me.
So let’s explore why your property needs snags to cultivate abundance, and then look at what you can do where you live.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Listening and Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- Why Snags are Awesome (And How to Get Started) – blog post talking about snags
Books and Other Resources
- The Hidden Forest by Jon R. Luoma
- Building and Managing Bee Hotels for Wild Bees
- Girdling – Wiki article
- The Ecology of Dead Wood – Really great YouTube presentation
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
Your Property Needs Snags to Support Wildlife
When I first started learning about the importance of snags and logs one statement really stood out to me. That there is more living biomass in a dead tree than a living one.
By weight, a dead tree is more alive than a standing one.
Now of course that doesn’t mean that a snag or log is more important than a living tree. But it does show just how much wildlife relies on snags and logs.
The book The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma gives a great introduction to the research being done on this. I’ve put a link to the book in the resources section of the show notes. That book is currently on my bookshelf, and I’ve read it multiple times. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.
When a tree dies or even starts to die bugs move in and start breaking down the deadwood. Woodpeckers then show up and do what they do—they start to hammer away making holes to get to grubs and other bugs.
And if the snag is big enough the woodpecker might make a deep cavity that drops down into the middle of the tree as their nest.
These cavities are later used by all sorts of other cavity nesters like owls and wood ducks which can’t make their own cavity nests.
And remember those little holes that beetle larvae and other bugs make? Those holes are used by some species of native solitary bees for their nests.
Along with leaving dead flower stems keeping snags around is a great way to support native bees.
As the snag continues to break down the wildlife it will support changes. And once it eventually does fall to the ground the log can become a nurse log supporting the next generation of trees. Plus, amphibians like salamanders love to hide in these rotten logs.
I could keep going on about all the wildlife that use snags but what I really hope you take away from this is that snags aren’t just a dead tree. They’re filled with life and if you cut down and remove snags on your property then all the wildlife that rely on them won’t be able to survive on your property.
And unfortunately, snags are fairly rare these days due to the way our forests tend to be managed. But if you want to support wildlife and you live in a historically forested area then your property needs snags.
Getting Started with Snags on Your Property
But what do you do if your property doesn’t have snags? I’ve been dealing with this on our property. There were just a few trees along the fence line when we moved here and no snags.
The solution is to quote and quote plant snags. This can be done in 2 ways.
- Place salvaged logs in the ground like you would a fence post.
- Plant trees that you will later girdle to make snags.
The first option is the easiest and I’ve been doing this a lot on our property. You can even do this on urban lots.
You can use a post hole digger to make a hole just like you would for a fence post. Make sure the hole is wide enough for the log and then just stick the log down into the hole and pack in the removed soil around it to hold it in place.
To be safe make sure around a third or so of the log is buried.
While you can use large equipment to plant large snags I know this isn’t an option for everyone. I’ve stuck to just logs that 1-2 people can easily carry.
These logs don’t make large snags but they still help. I’ve seen woodpeckers and lots of other wildlife visiting the ones I’ve planted.
And to improve the benefit these small snags provide for wildlife I’ve started drilling small holes in them for solitary native bees to use. Instead of building native bee hotels, I’m just using these small snags to support the bees.
Drilling holes isn’t necessary but it does speed up the process.
I’ve put a link in the resources section of the show notes to a great pdf from the Michigan State University Extension all about building and managing bee hotels for wild bees. You can apply the guidelines in that pdf to your snags.
The second option to getting snags on your property is to turn existing trees into snags. These can be either trees you planted for this purpose or overcrowded trees on your property.
A lot of forest land is overcrowded and filled with trees that are all the same age. Just look at the trees in your forest and see if there is much variation in the height and size of the trees.
A healthy forest should have a mosaic with trees of different sizes, ages, and species resulting in a mixed canopy that also has open areas.
This is what you tend to find in old-growth forests.
And snags are a big part of this sort of forest. You can help improve an unhealthy overcrowded forest by girdling some of the trees to make them into snags. I’ve put a link about girdling in the resources section of the show notes.
This will give the remaining trees more space to grow and should improve their health. And the new snags will improve the habitat the forest provides for wildlife.
You can make the snags safer by cutting off the top of the tree so the remaining snag is around 20-feet tall. This is tall enough to support lots of wildlife and makes the snag less likely to fall over. The top part of the tree can be left as a log or used for firewood. This can be a good way to create habitat while still harvesting some of the wood if needed.
You can do all this yourself but hiring a professional is the safer option.
And if you don’t have an existing forest on your property you can plant trees with the idea that you will turn some of them into snags when they get big enough.
I’m planning on planting a lot of native red alders on my property. These trees grow quickly and fix nitrogen which along with the leaves they drop each fall can help improve the health of your soil.
You can plant them very densely and then thin them as they grow until your left with a smaller number of trees.
Some of the thinned trees can be cut down and either left on the ground or used for firewood. But you can also girdle some of them to create snags.
This can be a great way to improve the health of an area and create the conditions other trees and plants need to thrive. I’m hoping to use this approach to transform degraded fields into abundant native forests and food forests.
Red alders are a good option here in western Washington but this approach can be done with other fast-growing trees. I like to use native nitrogen-fixing trees like red alders since the extra nitrogen can help other plants grow and thrive.
Regardless of the approach, you take the goal is to increase the number of snags on your property safely.
Planting small logs is the easiest and quickest option but thinning an overcrowded forest that you either planted or already exists on your property can result in larger snags and better overall habitat. I would start with planting small logs to create snags but just keep the other options in mind.
Just remember if you live in an area that used to be forested then your property needs snags if you want to support wildlife and cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to already have snags on your property then please leave them. If you’re worried about safety, then you can have the top part cut down. Just make sure to leave at least the bottom 20-feet of the snag.
Woodpeckers and lots of other wildlife will thank you.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at the most important reason to plant native plants. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode. I’ve also included a link to a great YouTube video all about snags and their role in the landscape.
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