Like the Big Bad Wolf, oddly shaped “wolf trees” used to get removed. But they’re seeing a surge in popularity because of their remarkable wildlife value.
Behind our office sits the largest tree I have ever seen. It’s a huge white oak whose branches sprawl out in all directions even wider than the tree is tall. It stands out from over a thousand feet away. The other trees growing beside it look like puny sticks compared to this behemoth.
In forestry, sprawling trees like this white oak have a name: wolf trees. The reason they look so different from the trees around them is because they have a different history. They’re usually much older than the surrounding trees. Often they were grown in the open when the woods around them was a field.
A good place to find wolf trees is on land that used to be a farm. When early farmers cleared the land, they would often leave a few scattered trees to mark field boundaries or property lines. Other times they would leave a tree in the middle of the pasture so the cows or sheep they were raising could have some shade. Later, when the farm was abandoned, a new forest grew up around the wolf tree.
The name “wolf tree” comes from how many landowners and foresters used to view them. Like the Big Bad Wolf, these trees were targeted for removal. Their often short trunks make them useless for lumber, and their wide-branching shapes take up a lot of space where profitable trees could grow.
But lately, wolf trees are enjoying a surge in popularity. Why? The same large size and complex growth that make them worthless for timber make them favorites for wildlife. Black bears, for example, will only den in trees with trunks more than 20 inches wide. On most family-owned woods, there are few trees that size except for wolf trees.
Songbirds are drawn to wolf trees too. A biologist in Vermont observed twenty-two kinds of birds foraging in wolf trees, compared with just seven species in regular trees nearby.
Wolf trees provide for so many animals because apart from their size, their age gives them structural features that younger trees lack. For instance, wolf trees often have some dead limbs. Those limbs attract insects that in turn draw in woodpeckers and small mammals like chipmunks. They may also have loose bark, which bats will roost underneath.
Bats love the loose bark common on wolf trees. In summer, mother bats will raise their children in the relative safety of this bark shelter.
All these smaller animals lure in predators. The Vermont biologist I mentioned also set up motion-sensing cameras around wolf trees. He discovered that foxes, bears, raccoons, coyotes, and fishers visited wolf trees nine times more often than regular large trees nearby.
If you have wolf trees on your property, don’t cut them down. In an ideal world, you would have one of these trees for about every two acres of woods. Most woods won’t have nearly that many, so it’s important to protect the few you have.
To help maintain the wolf trees on your property, remove nearby taller trees to let the wolf trees get more light. Wolf trees’ large size demands a lot of solar energy, but because these trees were open-grown, they’re usually shorter than forest-grown trees of their species. Cutting the trees that shade them could help these old behemoths keep drawing in wildlife for another hundred years.
For more information on protecting older trees on your property, check out these MyWoodlot activities that can help you give your woods more of the characteristics of old-growth forest.